“That’s the problem with Catholicism,” said my housemate as we emerged from the Donmar. “Like a man or a fake tan, it never stays.” She was also insistent we stopped by a church on the way to Holborn station, only to be disappointed when she discovered that churches shut by 10 past 10 on a Monday night. Such is faith, and such is Joan; trying to determine when to stick, when to play on, and when faith becomes a hindrance.
Saint Joan is a 1923 play by Bernard Shaw chronicling the rise and plummet of Joan of Arc, from her initial pleads to be given (male) armour, to her trial and subsequent execution. It is a play about faith, about blind trust, and most strikingly, religious fanaticism. Joan is nothing if not a fanatic; utterly, utterly, fundamental in the execution of her beliefs and all the more threatening to the status quo because of it.
The key to revealing this facet lies with Gemma Arterton’s beautifully thought out portrayal of Joan. She spends every minute on stage forcing you to interrogate her motives, even her sanity. Joan seems deceptively tricky as a character; for so much of the play she is merely a mouthpiece for her convictions, it is only in the final vestiges of the play that she is allowed to give them depth, to give the concepts she holds so dear human actuality. For the first act, not a flicker of doubt passes across her face. There’s no question that this woman could lead an army if she speaks to her soldiers with half the conviction she speaks to the Dauphin. It is as though she does not yet realise her power, or at least her influence, preferring to give credit to God, which appears to unsettle the men of the play, who only know fighting, business and ecclesiastical politics. She does not yet realise that she could – if her voices told her to – bring down the system.
After the interval, as Joan’s standing shifts, it becomes a different game. Suddenly her religious spoutings are not compelling, they’re just desperate. You begin to realise that this illiterate, apparently pious young woman hasn’t got a clue what she is doing, and as such she falls victim to her judges very quickly. She tries to remain compelling, she forces them (and us, as the walls between them and us disappear,) to listen, even as her desperation rises but there is something underneath that slips away, fear probably, as her fanaticism seems to give way to madness and arguably suicide. During her trial, as her accuser tells her what she has done, accusing her of heresy; she stands nodding in agreement, tears streaming down her face, the occasional smile breaking through. Unhinged doesn’t begin to describe the image.
Josie Rourke’s production puts the play into an explicitly financial context, it may well be a classical voice chanting in the underscore but it is a voice that chants numbers, seemingly random, across the space. The play opens with an argument about shortage of goods, and into this chaos walks a religious fanatic. It probably shouldn’t work, but it does. I have a feeling that had I seen it from the front, with screens of stocks and shares permanently in my vision I may have felt differently, but as I watched from the side I tuned them out, allowing the words to fill the stage. Regardless, we are presented with a capitalist society that is resistant to anything that does not seek to advance its own aims, and will accept anything – including a young woman in medieval peasant garb – in order to do so.
The play may well be called Saint Joan, but it is a man who puts the words in her mouth, God and Shaw – although the latter may well claim they are one and the same – and Shaw’s patronising attitude towards feminism rears its head throughout. It seems to be a vehicle for Shaw’s own political beliefs, as opposed to a movement in its own right. But it is Joan’s womanness that is crucial, Shaw is saying that if Joan were to exist today, we’d burn her again. I’m inclined to agree.
In the last striking image of the play, the epilogue, as ash cascades onto a chaplain, the remnants of medievality are burnt away. Joan, now dressed as a modern woman, asks the heavens “How long, O Lord, how long?” But how long till what exactly? Emancipation? Or the ability to shout? Perhaps, as this production suggests, they are the same thing.