NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont.—Joan of Arc was giving a lengthy speech.
She had appeared to violate the rules. She was warned. She was given an explanation.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
And that persistence, deadlier than the kind that earned Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren her infamous rebuke, led directly to Joan’s death at the stake.
Four hundred years later, it resulted in her eventual canonization by the very church that sanctioned her gruesome death. And, lucky for us, it resulted in Tim Carroll’s clear and clever production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” which opened the Shaw Festival’s 56th season on May 25 in the Festival Theatre.
The thundering applause that greeted Sara Topham at the conclusion of the opening production seemed to serve as instant confirmation that this play resonates with the resurgence of zealotry and nationalism. It also confirmed that Carroll, the festival’s adventurous new artistic director whose expertise lies in Shakespeare rather than Shaw, was an inspired if unorthodox choice.
The selection makes sense for Carroll, who claims “Saint Joan” as his favorite Shaw play because it contains so much inspired poetry. But it also has something to do with the appeal of the title character, who remains as unusual on a 21st century stage as she must have been in the court of King Charles VII.
In his preface, Shaw describes Joan as “the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages” and “about as completely the opposite of a melodramatic heroine as it is possible for a human being to be.” He posited that she was burned not because of any real transgression, but because of her “unwomanly and insufferable presumption.”
If that rings any bells about politicians or political candidates, it should.
In Carroll’s minimalistic production, designed as if by Stanley Kubrick, Topham renders Joan’s teenage guilelessness and naiveté to convincing effect. Compared with Tara Rosling’s equally fine performance in the same role in the Shaw Festival’s 2007, Topham brings a softer and more free-spirited touch that works better with Carroll’s refreshingly jokey approach.
Judith Bowen’s austere set and Kevin Lamotte’s laser-focused lighting work in concert to create minimalistic atmosphere that removes the characters from their own era and enable us to focus on Shaw’s crystalline prose. The design, Carroll has said, was inspired by the British scenographer Edward Gordon Craig and Czech lighting designer Jozef Svoboda.
The set features a translucent box out of a Francis Bacon painting that sometimes floats ominously above the stage and other times imprisons cast members like an Apple Store display. There are also several long beams of searing white light, one of which is attached to a gargantuan mirror that pitches up and down to reflect and extend the action onstage – a blurrier version of the one in “A Chorus Line.”
With few distractions, we can more easily imagine what the Bishop of Beauvais (Graeme Somerville) means when he talks about the consequences of enabling Joan’s nationalistic, nigh-dictatorial hubris: “It will be a world of blood, of fury, of devastation,” he says, “of each man striving for his own hand: in the end a world wrecked back into barbarism.”
What prevents this abstract setting from becoming some piece of graduate student mimicry is Carroll’s emphasis on humor. Like most successful directors, he recognizes the need to juxtapose humor and tragedy, and he ensures those aspects live in close quarters throughout the show.
Perhaps the best example is in Tom McCamus’ hilarious performance as the Earl of Warwick, a slick operator who makes no bones about his desire to burn Joan out of political expedience.
Clever touches abound including Carroll’s intentional casting of the same actors in the roles of clergy and soldiers – the better to point up their inextricability. Bits of modern dialogue make their way into Shaw’s already quite contemporary prose, bringing the conversations even closer to our own language.
There’s even a wonderful bit of Bob Fosse-inspired choreography, when the members of the Dauphin’s court are revealed from beneath the box, theatrically fluttering their hands over their mouths as if to conceal their chatter.
The one off-note is the musical interludes, snippets of medieval chorales sung by the cast. Because they are not perfectly executed – as everything else in the production is – they pull us slightly away from the story.
And it is a grand story, told here by a playwright at the height of his talent, a director with a clear vision and a cast pouring everything they have into the challenge at hand.
3.5 stars (out of four)
"Saint Joan," a drama about the life and death of Joan of Arc, runs through Oct. 15 in the Festival Theatre, 10 Queen's Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $35 to $117. Call 800-511-7429 or visit shawfest.com.