Joan of Arc character study seen in its cultural context

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November 17, 2014

Saint Joan

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Kim Collier

Arts Club Theatre Company, Vancouver

Playing through Nov. 23

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Before the audience ever sees Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, we learn some things about her. The best hens in Champagne have stopped laying while she is kept waiting in the courtyard below and she won’t go away. Why hasn’t she been thrown out, the squire wants to know; are the servants afraid of her? “She is so positive, sir,” replies his steward, enigmatically.

When we finally see her, the steward’s meaning becomes clear. Joan, a mere slip of a girl, a farmer’s daughter who by her own admission “doesn’t know A from B,” converses with her elders and her social and gender betters as an equal. Oh, she’s polite and genuinely warm, but not shy about ordering them around:  “Captain,” she tells the squire, “you are to give me a horse and armour and some soldiers and send me to the Dauphin. Those are your orders from my Lord.” Her Lord, it turns out, is God.

The squire thinks she’s mad, but in the end he does her bidding. Thus begins Joan’s campaign to oust the English “goddams” from France and crown the Dauphin King in Rheims cathedral. She succeeds, at least in part, but by 1431, victory has turned to tragedy: Joan is burned at the stake as a heretic and not one of her former comrades will intervene to save her. How can this be? Well, for one thing, her temerity has become insufferable.

Catching the right tone (sincere friendliness combined with unconscious presumptuousness) was complicated, but Vancouver actor Meg Roe proved herself equal to the task. A slip of a woman like Joan herself, Roe had early on been convinced by her father that Joan was the part to play if she wanted to be a “real” actress. She enlisted the assistance of director Kim Collier and the two of them eventually persuaded the Arts Club Theatre Company to take on the project. “It was fun to play a strong woman,” Roe said in a promotional video, and challenging to inhabit Shaw’s “big ideas.”

Unlike Shakespeare, Shaw places his characters in their cultural contexts. It wasn’t just Joan’s character flaws that doomed her, but also her insistence on a direct relationship with God – a heretical idea in the eyes of the Church hierarchy; her budding nationalism, which challenged the unity of the Holy Roman Empire; and her notions about the divine right of kings, which threatened the feudal lords. Then, of course, there was her rejection of woman’s traditional role and her insistence on wearing men’s clothing. Some dislike Shaw’s “big ideas” and think they make his plays wordy, but, for others – and I am one – the context adds texture and depth.

To make time to explicate his “big ideas,” Shaw eschews pomp and circumstance. Battles are fought off-stage; the king is crowned off-stage; Joan is burned off-stage. Nevertheless, there was no absence of “theatricality” in this production. Soldiers mingled with the audience (at one point, Joan climbed into the balcony to urge her men onward into battle); singers provided her saints’ voices in ecclesiastical music composed by Alessandro Juliani; and an elegantly simple set with a revolving stage designed by Pam Johnson accommodated scenes as diverse as the countryside above the Loire river and the interior of Rheims cathedral.

This is a big show in every sense of the word. Eleven actors took to the boards, most of them double-cast, some even triple-cast, and the production lasted in excess of three hours, including two intermissions. The director cut most of Shaw’s epilogue, but fortunately retained his final line, which resonates today as strongly as ever: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”

Shaw completed this play in 1924, four years after Joan was canonized. In 1925, Shaw received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

For Victoria residents who want to check into this play more deeply before spending  hard-earned dollars on an overnight trip to Vancouver, there’s a link to Shaw’s preface and the script through Project Gutenberg.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright who wishes she could write like George Bernard Shaw.

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