Joan d’Arc was born January 6, 1412, and was burned at the stake on October 30, 1431.
During her short life, the oft referred to “Maid of Orleans” was the object of both adoration and damnation because of her role in the Hundred Years’ War and her connection to King Charles VII. The uncrowned monarch sent her to the siege of Orleans. Within nine days, leaning heavily on the advice of her “voices,” she defeated the English and had Charles crowned.
Some present day mental health practitioners would label Joan as schizophrenic. Religious leaders and the French who adored her thoroughly believed that the voices of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who she vowed she heard and spoke with, were real.
Her life ended at age 19 when she was captured by the English, refused to admit she was practicing heresy and was sentenced to death by pro-English Bishop Beauvais Pierre Cauchon. Her post-humus conviction was rescinded in 1456, and she was declared a martyr. She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920.
Joan has been the subject of literature, paintings, sculpture, and memorialized by writers, filmmakers and composers. Even a video game has been created with her as the main character.
George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” was written three years after her canonization and dramatizes her life based on the records of the trial which led to her death.
Interestingly, Shaw, who was a noted religious nonbeliever, indicated that concerned people acted in good faith according to their beliefs. He stated in the play’s long preface, “the characterization of Joan by most writers is romanticized to make her accusers come off as completely unscrupulous and villainous.”
Not all agree with Shaw as one historian of the time argued that the play was highly inaccurate, especially in its depiction of medieval society.
Some theatre historians declare the play to be Shaw’s “only tragedy,” and Joan a tragic hero. Shaw, himself, characterized it as “"A Chronicle Play in 6 Scenes and an Epilogue".
The Shaw production, under the direction of new Artistic Director, Tim Carroll, is captivating. He states he chose the play to be his first offering in his tenure because,” I have always loved “Saint Joan.” He goes on to explain that it appears that this play liberated the poet in the writer and that “I think Shaw sees himself in her.”
The script obviously also released something in Carroll. His staging is creative. The motives of the interpretation are crystal clear, the use of contemporary dress and language leaves no idea hidden, the imaginative set design which places all the action front and center eliminates theatricality, the audience is sucked in and is an active witness to history.
Joan is not portrayed as a wild religious fanatic or a psychotic. Sara Topham brilliantly underplays the young lady. She is real, vulnerable, yet assured. She does not rant. She explains with conviction. We believe that she believes. Topham does not act Joan, she is Joan.
Masterfully, Wade Bogert-O’Brien as the Dauphin, avoids past portrayals of Charles VII-to be, as a fey sniveling idiot. His Dauphin is a young man aware that he is unready to assume the massive responsibility being thrust upon him and doing everything to avoid being termed a failure.
Other members of the cast are equally as competent, each a clearly etched realistic character. There are no caricatures here, only well-conceived characters.
Kevin LaMotte’s lighting and Judith Bowden’s design aid in creating this epic production. Claudio Vena’s original music helps set the right tone for the style of the staging.
Capsule judgement: “Saint Joan,” under the direction of Tim Carroll, is a masterful piece of theater. The production is clear in its intent and purpose and compels the audience to be a part of history. Bravo!
For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.