Back when I wasn’t sure what I was doing for New Years, I got myself tickets to see Saint Joan via the Donmar’s Young & Free scheme. I knew next to nothing about the play, other than it being about Joan of Arc, and was pleasantly surprised by the performances and the surprisingly modern tone.
Written by George Bernard Show in 1923, it is the story of Joan (Gemma Arterton), a young woman who claims to hear voices from the saints instructing her to challenge the British and crown the Dauphin (Fisayo Akinade) as the rightful King of France. When she succeeds and demands to try and take on Paris, her allies begin to abandon her and hand her over to the British and church forces who are troubled by her presence.
Saint Joan tackles issues like the relationship between the individual and God; the church are frightened by Joan as she counters their belief that God’s words are only given to the clergy, to be given to the common people by them. It also deals with the rise of nationalism; Joan wants France to be for the French-speaking people, and claims it is against God for another country to attempt to claim it (…feel familiar?).
Director Josie Rourke has updated the setting to be taking place now; in boardrooms and with Newsnight and Bloomberg setting the scene. Only Joan is presented in period dress, at odds with the men around her in their crisps suits. This does at times feel a little unnecessary, as I feel that the script is modern enough, but allows for some nice touches (like the little Englander de Stogumber waving around a Daily Mail).
As Joan, Gemma Arterton just seems to glow on stage. She readily holds her own against the all-male cast, and makes it easy to understand how Joan could get soldiers and ordinary people to follow her into battle. The rest of the cast are all doing great work: Jo Stone-Fewings is mustache-twirlingly good as the Earl of Warwick, Richard Cant is brilliant as de Stogumber especially in the plays final moments, Fisayo Akinade milks the comedy out of the pretty useless Dauphin and Hadley Fraser is swaggeringly charming as the Bastard of Orleans, who ultimately abandons Joan to her fate.
Whilst the pace of the show does occasionally feel a little off, it is a really interesting look at firstly Joan of Arc, and secondly the place of outspoken people (particularly women) against the political and religious powers that are in place to keep them down.
Saint Joan runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 18th February. It will also be broadcast live into cinemas on 16th February. Details can be found here.