If you think the setting for a play entitled ‘St. Joan’ is Medieval Europe, think again.
Audiences taking their seats at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre this week for its latest production will be most intrigued to find a two-tier stage designed by Grace Smart (whose innovative concept won the Linbury Prize for Stage Design last year) reflecting a modern office environment complete with computers, desks and metal filing cabinets, and a well-tailored woman tapping earnestly on a keyboard.
Thus begins a highly creative theatrical interpretation of Bernard Shaw’s take on one of the world’s most mysterious women, an intriguing life compounded by the nefarious political machinations of both Church and State in their thirst for enduring power and wealth.
Aside from surprising stage design is the surprising persona of Joan herself, played brilliantly by Lisa Dwyer-Hogg. As one might imagine, she is pixie-like with cropped hair but there’s no sign of a sword, a horse or military garb. Instead, she’s shoeless and dressed in torn tee-shirt and faded dungarees aka Sinead O’Connor that barely fall below her knees, more an orphan waif than a ruthless, fearless leader who’d inspire a depressed, defeated army to toss the victorious English from French soil and restore the Dauphin to his throne in Rheims. But, early in the play, when she’s admitted into the office of Robert, a feudal lord, played in a suitably irascible manner by Alan McKee, she is nothing less than direct and sublimely confident while at the same time both pleasant and respectful as befits a peasant girl speaking to a member of the aristocracy of the period.
While Shaw himself studied the transcripts of Joan’s life and death and decided that the concerned people acted in good faith according to their beliefs, even going as far as to write, “There are no villains in the piece,” I dare anyone to leave the Lyric believing this. By turns, characters huddled around Joan, excluding one sympathetic fellow military leader played with a sharp sense of realism by Abigail McGibbon, exude a generous dose of cynicism, superficiality and sheer single-mindedness and greed, ever more so as they realize Joan’s value to them in preserving their social status. Fearful their material comforts may be snatched from them, they use her to overthrow their enemies. Then, when they sense those very same comforts may still be taken from them – ironically, in the name of God and King, whom they purportedly fought for – they plot the heroin’s ultimate downfall. If that’s not villainy, what is?
To this end, selection of Smart’s office setting (other design options included a desert-like, futuristic environment and a bombed-out Gothic church in a landscape evocative of the Somme during World War Two) is an enduring one. It indicates that the ‘Joans’ of this world are still all around us in the modern world, battling against corporations and the collective, just as they were in the Middles Ages and indeed in Shaw’s early 20th century world. And that many of them end up being sacrificed by the greedy and the powerful.
Director Jimmy Fay has done a fine job of bringing Shaw’s rather dense work to the contemporary stage with the help of Irish actor Philip O’Sullivan, who both pared down the original script and also plays the roles of the archbishop and the inquisitor. Highlights among the on-stage innovations is the depiction of dramatic battle scenes using only ordinary furniture, piles of copy paper tossed in the air and a little background music. It is quite a chaotic, spellbinding dramatic moment.
As for acting highlights, there are many. If I were to select two, my first would be Dwyer-Hogg, especially her performance in the final despairing court scene, one that demands immense emotional intensity and which the actress discharges with such bravura and insight one is left with the overwhelming sense of Joan connecting to a higher spiritual entity. My second choice goes to Newry-born actor, Kevin Trainor, who creates a prancing, dainty, porcelain-like Dauphin who, alongside his amusing regal melodramatics – and certainly compared to the sheer hypocrisy of most of the other characters – is at least honest about his intentions when he says he seeks nothing more than the easy life: comfort, money and good food, all of which he is simply not prepared to fight or dirty his hands for.
Go see this production and prepare yourself, metaphorically at times, for rancid ceremonial oils, wolves in human clothing tearing at pieces of a body, murder defended as political necessity, miracles concocted willy-nilly to create faith and the ultimate sin of women dressing up ‘unnaturally’ in men’s clothing. And, as O’Sullivan writes in the programme, for many ‘isms’ including “sexism, racism, imperialism, Catholicism, Protestantism, fanaticism, fascism, militarism, sectarianism, fundamentalism, secularism, triumphalism, nationalism” – and much more.
Interestingly, while all the performances in this play are highly-commendable, creating collective excellence and a rich theatrical experience, a preview audience earlier this week delivered a perfunctory 30-seconds of applause. Thankfully, some people stood in tribute to the on and off-stage talents they had enjoyed. This short duration of applause reflects either the conservative and emotionally shy and awkward nature of the northern Irish persona or the actors needing to learn not to leave the stage quickly and instead justifiably indulge – certainly in this case – in the gratitude being offered for a most absorbing pièce de théâtre.
‘St. Joan’ runs at the Lyric until October 8.