Wednesday 11 January 2017

St Joan at the Donmar, or Ineffective Modernisation

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 7th January 2017.

The previous time I saw this great play was at the National Theatre in 2007 directed by Marianne Eliot and starring Anne-Marie Duff in the title role. Shortly before I attended this new version a debate arose in my twitter timeline about the appropriateness or otherwise of making comparisons to past productions/performances. I personally think that criticism to be meaningful needs benchmarks. In addition a great production of a work I've seen previously actually usually has the effect of making me forget, while I'm watching it, that I have seen those previous versions (a recent show that achieved this was the Opera North Billy Budd). But to return to St Joan. That 2007 NT production was outstanding. Josie Rourke's new version doesn't run it close, mainly because of a badly judged attempt at modernisation.

Recently I've felt that rather a lot of directors appear haunted by the Iraq war (Ivo van Hove's recent Barbican Shakespeare mash-up and Robert Icke's ineffective Oresteia at the Almeida spring to mind). This seems to result in a desire to make plays which weren't specifically dealing with that conflict overtly speak to it – the results in my experience are rarely effective. Rourke's St Joan falls into this trap. Robert Jones's set (bar the beginning and the end) consists of an enormous glass conference table and pastel covered chairs on wheels, backed by video display screens. The table is further placed on a revolve, and proceeds to do so for almost the entirety of the show – this device adds nothing. As on other occasions with this kind of narrowing of focus of geographically expansive work, the show loses a sense of kingdoms being at stake – not only because the world is so circumscribed but more significantly because rooms and costuming are so nondescript we could be pretty much anywhere in the modern world. No doubt that is the point, but it falls down when the script is so very clear about when and where we are supposed to be. Putting only Joan in more medievalish garb only further confuses the issue. The table also imprisons the actors – it hampers the ability to create effective tension in positioning and interaction. On occasion Rourke goes even further to deliberately hamper this – most notably in the bizarre decision to have Joan's meeting with the Dauphin staged as a video conference call.

Finally, on the production side, there is the ineffective use of the video screens. Here I had the feeling that Rourke simply didn't trust the text and the audience enough. Shaw's story is very clear, but Rourke seems to feel the audience needs it spelling out even further. Consequently, she interpolates video of news reports telling us what is going on. These are done, at least to begin with, as stockmarket type bulletins with the various scenes framed as taking place at French businesses. These slow down the drama, don't tell us anything we couldn't grasp from Shaw's text, and it is telling that the device is largely abandoned after the interval, but there is a more serious problem. There are a number of big issues at play in that text, but money is not the central one – in that sense too the screens are a distraction rather than a reinforcement of the play's arguments.

Given the unhelpful environment I have some sympathy with the overall failure of the ensemble to reach the highest level. This is a set of solid rather than outstanding performances. There are strong moments from most, the Archbishop's (Niall Buggy) first scene for example. Fisayo Akinado's Dauphin is also nicely weak and I would like to see Arthur Hughes in a larger part. But there is a significant overall problem. No one in the cast quite manages one of those seamless performances of text where their lines flow in character from beginning to end. Shaw is tricky in this respect, as tricky I think as, for example, Shakespeare. Here too many individuals interpolate the odd pause in the wrong place, or just don't quite manage that total joining of delivery with character that is essential to a really great piece of acting. There isn't finally an individual performance to compare with Oliver Ford Davies's Inquisitor or Anne-Marie Duff's Joan or, if you want a more recent comparison, Ralph Fiennes's performance in the NT revival of Shaw's Man and Superman. I also had the feeling that the cast and/or Rourke were too keen to go for the individual laughs where they needed to pay more attention to the rhythm and build of the longer arguments. Finally, nearly all the performances here were too much at one level – there are key confrontations where the temperature on stage needs to ebb and flow in subtle ways (the trial scene is a good instance) and the ensemble don't sufficiently find that nuance.

There are also individual strangenesses – the decision to give Rory Kennan's Inquisitor an American accent is just bizarre (and badly undermines the scene that follows). More seriously, the show just doesn't decide what its perspective on Joan is. Looking back at my review of the NT production I find that Eliot was powerfully ambiguous about this, but for whatever reason Rourke's version is just confused. She fails to bring out sufficiently why the men give way to Joan in the early part of the play, and Joan's swings of mood in the trial scene feel disconnected from each other. I've seen Gemma Arterton give fine performances in other work (Made in Dagenham comes to mind) but I did not find her as compelling here as others have done.

In the last moments of the production (and despite Rourke's significant cuts to the epilogue – my recollection is the NT retained several of the key figures to confront Joan in that scene where Rourke reduces it to one), the show does find a punch, but it is too late. Yet, despite all these issues, one still catches glimpses of the intelligence and relevance of Shaw's powerful text. If only Rourke had put more focus and trust on it and on assisting her ensemble to master it this might have been a very different afternoon.

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