Hero to Villain to Martyr
When Joan of Arc leads the French into battle, she is victorious. But she is seen as a heretic and a threat to the court who must be destroyed. Later she is found innocent and much later, she is canonized Shaw’s very moving play, Saint Joan, is now on stage at the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
In the 1400s, young Joan hears the voice of God telling her to go to war and lead the French troops into against England in the Hundred Years’ War. She does so successfully. But she is put on trial for heresy and finally burned at the stake. Shaw wrote Saint Joan in 1923, shortly after Joan of Arc was made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
Saint Joan is a story without villains, according to Shaw. He has tried to write a story without assigning blame. Yet in this production, where Joan is such an earnest and endearing character, others will be blamed for her death. Saint Joan is considered Shaw’s only tragedy.
It is impossible not to take Joan’s side in this production. Sara Topham’s passionate performance gives us a Joan who is engaging and sincere. You believe that she has heard voices directing her to go to war. She is also charismatic, convincing all naysayers. She is so firm in her beliefs that she is simply stating facts. While those around accuse her of arrogance, she just reiterates the facts. There is nothing beguiling about Topham’s Joan; her charm comes from her simple naivety and honesty. Topham charms the audience.
Gray Powell as Dunois is excellent, while Benedict Campbell gives a powerful performance as the Archbishop of Rheims. Wade Bogert-O’Brien as the Dauphin (later Charles VII) is suitably unsettling, while Tom McCamus as Richard, Earl of Warwick creates a dominant character.
Credit goes to Tim Carroll in the direction of Saint Joan, his initial production since taking on the role of Shaw’s Artistic Director. His Joan is strong without being aggressive, and charismatic without being contrived. He did not feel the need to weaken the men around Joan in order to make her appear strong.
The set is stark and penetrating. The stage is slanted towards the audience, making the characters seem like they are coming in our direction. The use of lighted boxes and a line of light add to the starkness. At times, characters are inside a large lighted box. And a single lighted box represents the stake where Joan is burned.
Costumes are not from the 1400s. Some are dressed in uniforms that could be from World War II, while others appear in suits and ties which are more modern. Joan’s simple costumes could be representative of almost any era.
For Shaw aficionados, this production of Saint Joan is a must-see. Those who appreciate great acting in a well-directed play will also be captivated by this production.
Saint Joan continues in repertoire at The Shaw Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 15. For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-SHAW(7429).
Photo: Left: Sara Topham as Joan and Gray Powell as Dunois in Saint Joan. Right: Cast of Saint Joan. Photos by David Cooper.
By Bernard Shaw
Directed by Tim Carroll
Music Direction and original music by Claudio Vena
Designed by Judith Bowden, Lighting designed by Kevin Lamotte
Movement Director by Alexis Milligan
Performed by Sara Topham, Gray Powell, Benedict Campbell, et al
Produced by The Shaw Festival
Shaw Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 3 to October 15, 2017
Reviewed by Mary Alderson