GEORGE BERNARD SHAW long campaigned for Britain to have a national theatre, and in 1938 wrote: “Do the English people want a national theatre? Of course they do not. They never want anything. They got the British Museum, the National Gallery, and Westminster Abbey, but they never wanted them.”
Like it or not, the British got their theatre, and Saint Joan was, in 1963, the second play ever to be staged by the company. It is Shaw’s only play to have been performed more than once by the National Theatre company: this production is the third, and, with it, the director, Marianne Elliott, reminds any doubters that Saint Joan has lost none of its edge.
This is a production that dazzles with theatrical flourishes. Stark lighting and imposing choreography surround Shaw’s dialogue with a whole series of memorable images; and the music written by Jocelyn Pook adds powerful sonorities and haunting melodies.
Anne-Marie Duff’s portrayal of Joan is exemplary. She brings an earthy humanity to the role which makes Joan’s religious conviction all the more striking: this is someone extraordinary and unconventional, but — as her soldier followers testify — utterly believable. When the Archbishop of Reims is confronted by Joan, he remarks that he “has to learn to suffer fools patiently”. Joan is shown to be no fool, but her descent from glory to heresy trial is captivating.
Critics have suggested that Shaw is often short on historical accuracy, but what he does stimulate is a discussion of how the Church responded to an emerging sense of French nationalism, and how it dealt with both the threat and the opportunity presented by a figure whose dynamic, unpredictable, and vigorous spirituality contrasted with its reliance on hierarchy and liturgical order.
As the action moves towards the trial that seals Joan’s fate, there is a relentless emotional intensity to the performances. The dialogue offers timeless observations about the nature of authority. Joan states that she never speaks unless she knows she is right. How does she know she is right? Because she hears saints’ voices in her head. Earlier, she was accused of imagining such voices. Her riposte is: “That’s how God reaches us.”
Resolute to the end, Joan is condemned to death by burning, and the scene of her death is one of extraordinary dramatic power. Chairs that have been used as props and percussion hitherto become the fuel for the fire in which she burns, in a scene of memorable intensity and simplicity.
In the Epilogue, the audience is reminded of the Church’s repeal of the charges against her, and of Joan’s canonisation in 1920. The scene, in which Joan reappears, expands the historical sweep of the action into the near-contemporary world, raising new questions about the nature of the Church’s authority and its ability to mark its past failings.
In Shaw’s play, as perhaps in history, St Joan is an enigma, but one through whom notions of authority are challenged and human flaws are exposed. For many in a 21st-century audience, much of this must seem archaic; but this production shines a brilliant light on the fact that not only in the contemporary world does religion give rise to revolutionaries whose martyrdom threatens the established order.
At the Olivier, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1, until 4 September. Phone 020 7452 3000.