Sunday 5 August 2007

Religion and the Family at the National

At the start of the National Theatre’s new production of Shaw’s Saint Joan, it briefly seemed as if it could be a long evening. Never having seen the play before I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was puzzled to discover that the heap on stage was a heap of chairs, and couldn’t quite be doing with the slow motion deconstruction of the heap by the ensemble to some solemn religious music from the live band. Suffice it to stay that this stylised manner gradually builds, and the opening is stunningly justified by the last moments of the whole piece.

The staging consists of a large platform, set on the famous revolve. Behind is a stark backdrop of shattered trees, while to the sides what looks like a stack of corrugated fencing rests against the walls. Most of the action takes place on that platform with a kind of Greek chorus lounging around on the chairs (now formed into two rows) at the sides, forming the various armies and, in the climactic trial scene, the members of prosecution and defence teams (one of the clever aspects of the staging is to subtly implicate the stalls audience in much of what is going on).

The slow opening persists through the first scene, where the French commander who first encounters Joan just doesn’t get the character right. But when Scene 2 takes us to the French court things really catch fire. We have disgruntled commanders, a hapless monarch and the grim, gaunt Archbishop always ready with, as the weakling Dauphin puts it “another sermon”, and superbly played by James Hayes. As individuals and an ensemble they give perfectly judged performances. You get the feeling that Marianne Eliot knows where she wants them at every point – that there is a motivation for them to be standing wherever they happen to be standing. Gestures, tone, expression – it’s all there, and it makes for compelling theatre. That sense of complete performance is best realised in the final scene of the first act. This is preceded by the raising of the siege at Orleans. Apparently, I discovered afterwards, Shaw never intended this to be staged. Well, Eliot justifiable dismisses that. Slamming chairs hard down in a kind of crazy break dancing, small groups of the ensemble charging around the stage, Duff smashing the reverberating fencing in ecstasy, and finally, Duff being hauled upwards as the platform rises into the air to symbolise the taking of the forts while dead bodies roll down the back of it. It’s mesmerising, and Eliot follows it with a quite unexpected picture. Beneath the risen arch of the platform, a table has miraculously appeared at which the English commander, and his bluff clerical associate, are calmly taking tea. I have no idea whether this is in the stage directions but it’s a masterstroke. It captures a particular idea of the British at war – battles may have been lost but this trying situation must not be allowed to interrupt the serving of tea.

And amid this essentially ghastly collection of scheming men is Anne-Marie Duff’s Joan. Duff is at least three different people all struggling to express themselves. On one level the country girl in her ignorance treating these great courtiers as equals; on another the visionary who sees possibilities the rest of them are afraid (and one gradually realises with a kind of horror, with reason afraid) to grasp. Finally, as the play goes on she is the hopelessly caught up in forces she can’t really comprehend, her innocence which in the beginning was a strength turned bitterly against her.

I won’t spoil the ending for any readers who may see it, but it is perfectly clear why several reviewers have seen this as a play for our times. It is profoundly unsettling. As a viewer one is appalled by the treatment of Joan at her trial, but one is also forced to the recognition that her judges may not be wholly mistaken. How is anyone else to know whether Joan is actually hearing the voices of God, and what would happen if everybody else started to behave in that fashion. Behind the fears for loss of power (temporal or spiritual) expressed by earls and bishops, there are the darker spectres of blood and martyrdom. One is compelled to consider that Joan’s voices are precipitating just as much carnage as the more sober calculations of the cold bloods of the Earl of Warwick and the Inquisitor (among an array of biting lines, the Earl’s reposte to a terrified subordinate who has just witnessed Joan’s burning is particularly resonant – “If you have not the nerve to see these things, why do you not do as I do, and stay away?”). Those spectres are all the more telling precisely because Eliot resists the temptation to load the staging with modern examples – something it would be all to easy to do.

To reveal her alternative interpretative choice would be to spoil the brilliance of the ending. Perhaps it is best just to say that it’s a while since I’ve spent the bus journey home with my mind resting quite so much on the last scene of a play.

Having been so overwhelmed by Saint Joan, it was instructive to see the National’s other large scale production of the moment, Gorky’s Philistines, so soon afterwards. Although set in a completely different time (turn of the twentieth century Russia) and in a much smaller environment (a single house and its tenants) the style is very similar. As in the Shaw, we are confronted with a collapsing society, symbolised here by the warring generations of the family who own the house. Also, as with Shaw, the potential pitfalls are very similar. It is all too easy for lines here to sound like the author lecturing the audience and not like a sentiment being expressed by a rounded character in the play in whose character one genuinely believes. Eliot’s Shaw avoided these pitfalls, Howard Davies’s Gorky does not.

Let us start with the positives. The set is effective. Before the play opens we are confronted with a façade of windows, behind which various characters stride up and down. Their symbolic imprisonment is obvious but no less effective, and the disappearance of this façade into the stage floor to reveal the main living room with its multiple doors, the more so. During the first act you do feel that Davies has got a grasp on his cast, in the way that Eliot had in the Shaw. There are some very effective moments of staging and Ruth Wilson as Tanya, the depressed daughter of the house, and here making an impressive National debut is at the heart of most of them.

Two images particularly stay with me. Tanya, seated at the piano, picking out a dirge, her reflection illuminating the rainswept window beside her; Tanya, crouching at the far side of the stage, first behind the banisters, then behind a tatty armchair, watching in horror as Nil, the man she has been unable to express her love to is swearing his affections to her rival. That particular moment is the climax of the first act and the best part of the piece. Davies’s staging of these two scenes, the first between Tanya and Nil, the second between Nil and Polya, the woman he will marry, watched by Tanya and Teterev (Conleith Hill’s philosophic lodger, the other standout performance) from the shadows are very moving. Davies conjures electricity between Tanya and Nil in the miserable moment when Tanya tries to reveal her feelings, and her hands itch to hold his, but she cannot do it.

Unfortunately, in the second half the problems of the first significantly outweigh its promise. The pacing of the lines increasingly slips. Complaints about the collapsing society from the irate father, complaints about his hapless student existence from his estranged son tend to sound like lectures from Gorky rather than the expressions of the characters. The management of the increasing numbers of people on the stage becomes less effective, with too many people standing around at different points looking as if they have not been given sufficiently clear instructions. The result is that the father’s climactic betrayal of his family lacks bite, despite Phil Davis’s ferocity.

Finally, there is the curious matter of the new translation by Andrew Upton. He seems to have taken a decision to modernise, with the result that we get lots of swearing by Jesus, and the use of other odd terms like “weird” as a descriptor. This doesn’t sit well with the retention of the Russian names, making them seem incongruous. Nor does it fit with the staging, which maintains a basically traditional setting symbolised by the samovar. Obviously the stifling Russian drawing room and the taking of tea can drown plays of this kind, but consequently a decision has to be made one way or the other – traditional or modern. This production gets stuck between the two.

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