By Massimo Iacoboni
“Half an hour to burn you, dear Saint, and four centuries to find out the truth about you!”
The story of Joan of Arc, so utterly implausible – so intensely layered with political and religious overtones, so fraught with treachery and intrigue – is widely known, yet not easily summarized.
Yes, we all know that The Maid of Orleans, as she came to be known, was accused of heresy and witchcraft (among many other extremely grave sins, including cross-dressing) and burned at the stake. We are all aware of her vaunted military accomplishments – and yet few may know that her direct participation in actual battle is still the subject of heated dispute among historians.
She was a peasant girl who came into extraordinary prominence by hearing voices that told her what to do, a phenomenon widely referred to today as schizophrenia, whose sufferers are often confined to mental institutions and subjected to rigorous regimens of anti-psychotic drugs.
She was a girl with no education or military training who brought about a most significant reversal in the 100 Years War between England and France, who succeeded in crowning a doomed and hapless Dauphin as King of France, who inspired fanatical reverence among rugged, embittered, war-weary soldiers, and who finally aroused utter panic amongst the highest political and religious figures of her time, who conspired to bring about her demise through malicious and depraved survival schemes.
George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan dramatizes what is known of her life based on the substantial records of her Inquisition trial. After studying the transcripts, Shaw concluded that The Maid’s torturers were acting in good faith and in accordance to their beliefs, writing, in his preface to the play, that “There are no villains in the piece.. [ ] It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.” True enough, as some years after her death the Church itself saw fit to vacate her sentence and eventually declare her a martyr and a Saint, thereby acknowledging that Joan’s questioning of the Church’s infallibility had been, all along, quite apt (somewhat hilariously, in the play’s coda, as Joan pleads to be resurrected, all her allies make themselves scarce).
The play, which premiered in New York City in 1923 and received Best Revival Tony and Olivier Awards in 1993 and 2008, respectively, has been performed countless times and starred such stage luminaries as Uta Hagen, Lynn Redgrave, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench. The current Manhattan Theatre Club production, on Broadway through June 10, features the talented Condola Rashad (A Doll’s House Part 2) and a capable but somewhat uninspiring cast, from which Patrick Page, however, stands out in the dual roles of Robert de Beaudricourt, a military squire, and the mellifluous, but bone-chilling, Inquisitor.
Capable but somewhat uninspiring is a description that, regrettably, must be extended to much of the first act of this production. It is hard to find fault with anyone’s performance or with Daniel Sullivan’s (The Little Foxes) competent direction, but the complex subtlety of the wonderfully wicked dialogues, especially those between the French Bishop of Beauvais and the British Earl of Warwick, appeared to be handled a bit cursorily. And while Ms. Rashad’s Joan of Arc mesmerizes in the superbly staged, climactic scene of her trial, her reticence in fully embracing The Maid’s larger-than-life personality felt somewhat of a missed opportunity for the first half of the play.
Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.
WITH Condola Rashad, Walter Bobbie, Jack Davenport, John Glover, Patrick Page, Daniel Sunjata, Maurice Jones, Russell G. Jones, Max Gordon Moore, Matthew Saldivar, Robert Stanton, Lou Sumrall, Tony Carlin, Ben Horner, Mandi Masden, Howard W. Overshown, Michael Rudko and RJ Vaillancourt.
Scenic design by Scott Pask, costume design by Jane Greenwood, lighting by Justin Townsend, sound design by Obadiah Eaves, projection design by Christopher Ash, hair and wig design by Tom Watson, make-up design by Tommy Kurzman, original music by Bill Frisell.