Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney
June 9, 2018

As muted lighting rises on the vast open set, dominated by a dark, towering, monumental tucked curtain at the back of the stage, a figure in gleaming armour and sword is revealed – clearly Joan of Arc. She remains there, standing absolutely still, as an English chaplain (Sean O’Shea) and nobleman, the Earl of Warwick (David Whitney), stride onto stage, joined a little later by Cauchon, the French Bishop of Beauvais (William Zappa).

Gareth Davies, Sean O’Shea, David Whitney, Brandon McClelland and Sarah Snook. Photograph © Brett Boardman

So begins Imara Savage’s new production of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan for Sydney Theatre Company, not with Shaw’s opening scene but with one set much later in the play (Scene IV in the original version which consists of six scenes and an epilogue). Set in the English camp, it a brilliant encounter in which the three discuss how to suppress Joan’s subversion. Inspired by the teenaged Maid of Orleans, the French are unexpectedly winning battle after battle against the English occupiers. The weakly Dauphin is now to be crowned at Rheims Cathedral, and Joan’s popular following is soaring.

Both the Church and the feudal state want her stopped, but the three don’t agree on how. Does she commit miracles? Is she a witch or a heretic? Is there a way to have her burned at the stake even though she obeys the rules of the Church? It’s a clever, powerful way with which to start this new production, succinctly establishing the situation, which will soon see her brought to trial.

From there we are at the trial. A disheveled Joan sits on a chair centre stage, and the scenes that have led her to this point are portrayed as if flashbacks in her mind. What’s more, there are new monologues for Joan – the first when she is just 13, after an English soldier has entered her home, and St Margaret, St Catherine and the archangel Michael visit her for the first time, with messages from God telling her to dress as a soldier, see that the English are driven from France, and that the Dauphin is crowned.

Sarah Snook and Brandon McClelland. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Thus, Savage’s production of Saint Joan is not Shaw’s play as written but a version of it. A lot of Shaw’s text has been cut (including the opening scene with the hens that won’t lay eggs and the epilogue), many of his scenes have been reordered, and new monologues have been written for Joan by Savage and playwright Emme Hoy, who is part of STC’s Emerging Writers’ Group. These have a distinctly different style to Shaw’s writing, yet they still sit authentically within the production.

The reason for the changes, argues Savage in her program note, is that Shaw’s original play (which runs around three and a half hours compared to this version which runs one hour 45 minutes without interval) doesn’t tell us a great deal about Joan herself, who appears in less than a third of it.

When Shaw wrote it in 1923, three years after Joan was canonised, it spoke to the social and political concerns of his day, with references to World War I, the English occupation of Ireland, the rise of nationalism, and rational dressing for women, relating to the suffragette movement. Today Joan herself – a peasant girl born in a French village around 1412 who died at the stake in 1431, and who is now seen as a feminist icon, religious fundamentalist, audacious individualist and fierce nationalist  – is the real fascination for audiences.

By reframing the play, Savage puts Joan centre stage. She is there all the time, and the new monologues give us an insight into her mind, her connection to nature, her views on modern warfare, and the way the “voices” she constantly talks about actually spoke to her. The play is cerebral. There is lots of discussion and not a great deal of action but the story and the themes within it – particularly nationalism, religious fundamentalism and the role of women in society – emerge powerfully in this retelling. The canny restructuring works exceptionally well, and the whole drama is tighter, sharper and punchier as a result.

Sarah Snook. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Savage and her set designer David Fleishcher have created a stark, minimal space that matches the production’s stylistic approach. The stage is basically open, dominated by the massive curtain, but there are striking moments that ring out with great force – a red carpet for Joan’s meeting with the Dauphin, pouring rain when she first meets Dunois, the efficient leader of the French forces who recognises Joan’s military genius, and a wonderfully simple but clever way to portray her being burned at the stake.

The costuming by Renée Mulder is contemporary but with something of a timeless feel. The nobles are in suits, the men of the Church wear full-length black coats, and Joan herself is in cargo pants, a long-sleeved tee-shirt and shirt, with her hair at different lengths depending on the chronology. Nick Schlieper’s painterly lighting and Max Lyandvert’s music and sound – with church bells often ringing slightly fuzzily in the background – enhance the striking staging.

Savage has gathered an exceptional cast, all of whom speak the language superbly. It’s a joy to listen to, with the flashes of humour gleaming brightly among the dense, spirited, fascinating discussion. Rather than fill the stage with battle scenes, or furore at the trial, Savage hasn’t been afraid to have people stand still much of the time, but shows a keen sense of spatial awareness in the way the characters are positioned around the stage and in relation to each other. When not in a scene they stand behind it, a powerful presence watching on. And as the trial reaches its zenith, the men form around her in a semi-circle and mouth off at her fiercely in silent slow motion.

Sarah Snook glows as Joan, capturing her complexity – her almost naïve innocence, her fierce, down-to-earth defiance, her refusal to lie, and her bafflement at why she isn’t loved for what she has done. She cleverly captures the passing of time and Joan’s state of mind at different times, and exudes a fierce transcendence as we watch her pray fervently, almost shuddering with intensity, her hands over her ears. You are always aware of her as the physical and emotional force at the heart of the drama.

Brandon McClelland and Sarah Snook. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Around her, each actor plays their part superbly – David Whitney as Earl of Warwick and a captain, John Gaden as the measured, light-tongued Inquisitor and Archbishop, Sean O’Shea as the English priest and William Zappa as the French Bishop all create riveting characters. Brandon McClelland as Dunois and the executioner, Anthony Taufa as Bluebeard, and Socratis Otto as an officer and prosecutor lend their strength to the production, while Gareth Davies is very funny as the weedy Dauphin who cares little about the country and would prefer to be left to a comfortable life than forced to take action by Joan.

Anyone looking for a faithful telling of Shaw’s play may be surprised at some of the adventurous changes Savage and her team have made, but the story emerges strongly within a striking production full of fascinating ideas and stark images that will be hard to forget.

Saint Joan plays at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer theatre until June 30


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