THE MAID OF ORLEANS AND HER TORMENTORS
For fifteen minutes as the audience troops in Gemma Arterton, in chainmail and breastplate, kneels on a dais in rapt contemplation: mouthing prayers, prostrating herself before the Cross, offering up her sword, sober and serious. It is a silent prelude to a wordy play: and a 14th century meditation before Josie Rourke’s production takes us firmly into modern dress. Robert de Baudricourt yells at his Steward across a revolving glass boardroom table, while overhead the Bloomberg stock market screen reveals a disastrous shortage of eggs, millet and straw. It is a bold stroke to translate the medieval political manoeuvrings and clerical self-exculpations into grey-suited modernity, teasing us with the perennial nature of hypocrisy. George Bernard Shaw – who of course was writing about his own time too – would love it.
For it is the most political of plays. I spent three years as “L’Anglaise” in a convent school in Lille being blamed by classmates for burning Jeanne d’Arc, but was able to retort that there were a lot of wheeler-dealing French involved and that it was the Catholic Church – our lot, precursors of M. le Curé and his superiors – who handed her over as a heretic. And their precious Dauphin did nothing. At home we had a record dramatizing, verbatim, her trial, and I can still hear those brilliant “pert” retorts delivered with unshakeable faith and self-confidence, on why she dressed as a soldier “pour ma pudeur” and whether she was in a state of grace – “Si j’y suis, Dieu m’y garde! Si j’y suis pas, que Dieu m’’y mette!”. Magnificent. And both in Shaw’s text too.
His impassioned Fabian play was written when the torture of suffragettes was fresh in memory and the rise of the defiant “unwomanly woman” gaining traction. Being Shaw, he weaves in more than feminism: nationalism and its dangers, a forecast of “Protest-antism” against the interference of clerics with individual conscience, and a general reflection on the writhing frustrated helplessness of systems,traditions, chop-logic theology and theory and “proper procedure” in the face of fierce innocent simplicity.
It can be overbearingly wordy when Arterton’s gloriously straightforward, striding Joan is not onstage, radiating both determination and a real simplicity of girlish kindness. One might flag during the arguments within English, French and clerical boardroom meetings (the table is forever revolving) . But Rourke, with some cuts, keeps it moving along and gleefully lets us pick up every echo of modern preoccupations, from “rendition” to fanaticism (Mohammed gets a mention as being as dangerous as Joan) . The excuses for the distasteful necessity of burning a young woman alive are brilliantly done in the second half (“One gets used to it”). Hard not to think of the strategic discussions in three countries about Aleppo. And the moment when the trial judges descend to actual clerical fisticuffs is like the best sort of televised Select Committee.
There are roles to relish, aside from Arterton’s triumphant, touching and finally dramatic Joan. Fisayo Akinade as the Dauphin is wonderfully funny: camp, wet, cowardly; Rory Keenan as the (here American) Inquisitor is a chilling ancestor of all today’s Evangelical born-again homophobes. And Richard Cant gives a haunting, haggard fantaticism to de Stogumber, his hysteria decaying in final moments to traumatized brokenness. Memorable, powerful stuff.
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