Through October 15
SAINT JOAN Festival Theatre/Shaw Festival
Joan of Arc is one of those symbolic figures in European history, a woman of sudden power who was victorious, captured and then burned at the stake.
Within decades, the Vatican reversed the verdict of a church court convicting and excommunicating The Maid and then turning her over to the English and the Burgundians to be executed, “put to the fire.”
Nearly three centuries later, she was canonized as a saint.
There’s a lot of material here and it has been mined and remined and remined, again.
George Bernard Shaw mined it for “Saint Joan.”
Shaw Festival Artistic Director Tim Carroll turned himself into the director of the show.
It’s a production of strong casting, a fascinating set and a really strong performance from Sara Topham as The Maid.
Carroll chose to use the Epilogue Shaw wrote, a sketch of what happened to the principal players in this drama, both in real life and in the world the playwright created.
Shaw is a man of words, many, many, many words and “Saint Joan” is no exception, but there are so many words here because the playwright skips the major events of Joan’s short life.
We don’t see the battles.
We don’t see coronation.
We don’t see the execution.
Instead, we hear Joan persuading a relatively low-level commander to let her go to the Dauphin to persuade him to let her lead the army and rescue Orlėans, opening the way for the Dauphin to be crowned as Charles VII.
He’s a weak man and a weak king and someone who won’t give The Maid the army she wants to take Paris and restore it to France.
She is using her voices from God to control the way of war and the way for Charles to rule a united France from Paris.
The church is very suspicious of voices in the brain as the voice of God and had the power here to do something to stop those voices.
This is the time of the Hundred Years War, with France torn apart by war and civil war among England, Burgundy and the French.
The English controlled a large part of France and were allied with the Burgundians.
The Catholic Church was torn apart, with a growing shift to national churches allying with solidifying national states.
Here, it’s clerics cutting deals with governing forces to capture Joan, give her a Star Chamber trial and execute her.
The trial is the centerpiece of the play, especially as staged here by Carroll on an open stage hung seemingly in mid-air.
We watch the judges and the prosecutors square off over the Maid’s life, a Pontius Pilate struggle over heresy and excommunication before turning her over to the civil power.
Almost no one seems that interested in an actual trial with fairness.
Instead, it’s the trial of a woman who wants to wear men’s clothing and play in the fields of male power and winds up paying the price.
There are two evil people in this story, Peter Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais (Graeme Somerville), and Richard, Earl of Warwick (Tom McCamus), an important figure in the English Raj in France.
Designer Judith Bowden has him dressed in a well-cut pin-striped suit to bargain with the clerically-robed Cauchon to capture Joan and kill her.
Overall, the costumes are a mix of period and present.
In the absence of a strong king, we have weak men making their own way in the government or the church and looking for the main chance.
Benedict Campbell is wonderful as the archbishop of Rheims, more anxious to help the church than to let Joan gain for France.
Jim Mezon’s Dominican Inquisitor is a man of no conscience and no desire for justice, rather he wants to make the church look good and apply a set of rules to save France from what Shaw calls Protestantism, which was already present in Europe.
When Joan’s fate comes down to her wearing men’s clothes you know it’s all over and the matches are ready at the lumber pile waiting in the town square.
Since Shaw was writing five centuries after the event and after the Vatican had cleared her and then made Joan a saint he has a lot of material to work with.
I don’t know if the trial records were generally available, potentially, for Shaw to use but they do exist, although generally believed altered.
This all gives Shaw an opportunity to get up in the playwright’s pulpit to tell a story of the established church misusing its power to punish an uppity woman.
Carroll has a strong cast to work with, particularly Topham, Gray Powell’s Dunois, Campbell, McCamus, Mezon, Allan Louis’ Robert de Baudricourt and Karl Ang’s Chaplain John de Stogumber.
While the show has this elevated stage on the Festival Theatre stage, it’s a lot more complicated because of the use of light and backdrops and dropping and rising walls and rooms and side stages for mass turnouts.
It must have been expensive but it does work to focus the play and concentrate the action and the words to center stage.
“Saint Joan” is a long play about complicated issues from a time alien to us, filtered through the mind of a man who loved challenge and verbal competition, like what happens in this play.
It’s fascinating and well-staged and well-acted, but “Saint Joan” is also long and wordy, really wordy.
It’s the kind of play which makes you think and not everyone likes that but it’s very well done and worth seeing.
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