Went with the Dr last night to see St Joan at the National. Met m’colleague R. outside just beforehand, who was queuing to see a circus of performing insects, who warned that Shaw was “hard work” and “worthy”. But I have weathered plays in their original ancient Greek, performed by not-brilliant students and with the subtitles not working. So three hours of worthy English held only small fear.
I need not have worried. Anne-Marie Duff, in an otherwise all-male play, was by turns funny, inspiring and not a little mad, which made for a captivating performance. The rest of the cast discussed, argued and fell in love with, and ultimately failed to save her.
The £3 programme speaks of Shaw’s current unpopularity among the “blogging classes” (which says a lot in itself; the vast range of blogs is pretty classless, while the audience of a play in the Olivier Theatre is not). The play does feature some very long scenes, though they’re deftly punctuated by clever choreography. It doesn’t sound much to tell, but the cast move and manipulate their chairs to suggest the passing and pausing of time, and to tie the action into the music. The chairs are bodies and munitions being dragged through the mud during the siege of Orleans. They are the pyre on which Joan is burnt, and they are the off-centre-stage jurors who heckle and condemn.
It was also far wittier than I’d expected, with some clever gags about English bigotry. But for the long scenes it feels very contemporary and not nearly 100 years old. Its care not to make anyone a villain and its vision of history repeating felt particularly modern.
The programme is full of good stuff and talks of modern martyrs / terrorists, the history of France and of Shaw. But it has little on the context of when the play was written (in 1923). Is it, for example, playing on events in Ireland at the time? Duff plays Joan with an Irish accent while the rest of the cast are English.
“France” and “England” are dangerous, nascent concepts in the play, which challenge the system of feudal lords, who have complete power over their lands and, despite nominal lip service, are equals to their kings.
Joan is dangerous, then, for challenging the social order. As a commoner in direct talks with the Dauphin, she cuts out the intercession of the feudal lords. As a commoner in direct talks with God and his angels, she cuts out the intercession of the Catholic Church. She is therefore accused of two heresies well ahead of their time: nationalism and Protestantism.
Shaw wrote the play shortly after the Catholics had canonised Joan, and referred to her himself as a “Protestant martyr”. Yet the play seems to conclude that she died more for her politics than for her religion, the Inquisitor (played by Oliver Ford-Davies) saying that innocents must always be sacrificed.
It is, then, a savage attack on political necessity, and a critique of the well-meaning piety of those who insist upon it. The soldiers and lords and priests beg Joan to consider that she might be wrong in her beliefs, but the villains are those of them who remain unswayed in theirs.
The Dr wondered if it asked more general questions about colonial power after World War One, citing the Amritsar massacre of 1919. I was a little reminded of Orwell’s sense on inadequacy in the governance of the foreign mob, as in his Shooting an Elephant.