It is important to put the play “St. Joan” in the context of George Bernard Shaw’s lifelong belief in socialism and feminism as co-efficients. He believed that the one (feminism) could not exist without the reorganization of society, i.e., the reform of capitalism. He expressed these thoughts many times, not the least of which in “Pygmalion,” his most famous and most delightful expression of the class and gender wars. Remember that Eliza Doolittle in the end leaves the protection of Professor Higgins to marry the idle incompetent Freddie, to get a job and support him!
Playing at London’s Donmar Warehouse, “St. Joan” is a play about authority — the authority of the Catholic Church and of the feudal system. Is there such a thing as a nation? Do men owe their allegiance to the idea of nationhood or to their local feudal lords and masters? Joan believes in the concept of the French people and rejects the domination of the English. This is the central issue of the play, now and always, as well as the even more modern concern, that of individual conscience versus accepted authority.
She hears her Saints’ voices in the church bells and professes that she gets her directions directly from God. God tells her to leave the farm, dress like a bloke, push her way to see the head of the army (“the Bastard”) and lead the troops to victory so that the Dauphin can be crowned. This she does, but then the fun begins. All feel threatened by her incredible charisma, her self belief, her refusal to bow to the the way things are always done. Joan is a revolutionary and thus she must be discredited, contained and ultimately burned at the stake. The English are blamed for this (of course) historically, but the Catholic Church is the authority that accuses her of heresy, and then condemns her to the stake. So controversial was she that it took 500 years to canonize her.
The production gives a modern twist with Bloomberg screens and a boardroom setting. Men appear in grey suits. Joan is always in armor and male dress. The language is archaic but the ideas are contemporary. Joan as played by Gemma Arterton, is in turns playful, passionate, tactile, magnetic, reasonable, bolshie and has all the characteristics of a born leader. Men resist, then quail, then submit to her reasoned arguments. But in the end it is authority that wins out. Or does it?
A must see if you are in town.