Don’t shoot the messenger: subtlenuance’s Joan, Again

Many years ago, I discovered the story of Joan of Arc in the school library and was struck by the innocence and the passion, the overwhelming sense of conviction (in every sense of the word) that lay at the heart of her story. While I was later to rediscover her in Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (very much the ‘definitive’ portrait), Paul Gilchrist’s Joan, Again – playing at the Old Fitz Theatre – gives us a new imagining of The Maid of Orléans, a more mercurial, personal and contemporary Joan than we have met before.
As its title suggests, Joan, Again is not the story of the girl who became the legend. Set in 1441, ten years after Joan was burnt at the stake, it is a play about truths and lies, stories and legends, identity, fame and Being. While a historical drama in the loosest sense of the term – that is, being a drama that is based in historical events – it never purports to be history, and should not be mistaken for such; rather, it is a clever, smart and enchanting play that asks us if we are truly who we say we are, if we can believe everything we see or hear, and whether in the end we are all just stories to be told to other people.

Set in a small French village, Rachel Scane’s set locates us firmly in this world where plucking feathers and stuffing pillows is their bread-and-butter, a small village about to be turned upside-down. While not a large theatre, the Old Fitz’s stage allows ample room for the set and performances, and creates a kind of crucible, drawing us into the world of the play, the characters, and holding us there. Scane’s costumes belong to the fifteenth century world of Gilchrist’s play, yet also feel timeless – Joan is as much a part of our world as she is a medieval one. Liam O’Keefe’s lighting creates a sense of warmth and homeliness in Scane’s set, and grounds the play in a tangible and real emotional world.
Gilchrist’s cast are also strong. As Joan, Sylvia Keays played the naiveté and the forthrightness of youth, but also a worldweariness of someone much older than Joan’s purported nineteen years. As Imogen Stubbs said of playing Shaw’s Joan in1994, she is “the intractable teenager with [the] dogged determination of a child… a girl who [is] sometimes hard, violent, hysterical, proud, serene, vulnerable, always courageous. [We] are accountable to her, and [we] require the same loyalty from the actor who plays Joan.” We get this from Keays’ Joan too, as well as a beguiling sense of theatricality, of playing a role, a woman dressed in a man’s clothes; hers is a Joan who knows how to play a crowd, yet this never diminishes her humanity nor that at the heart of Gilchrist’s play.
As Cardinal Theobald, the Chief Inquisitor, Lynden Jones is full of a genial kind of menace, a sense that regardless of what you say or do, you’re damned nonetheless, one way or another. There’s a playfulness in his performance too, an awareness that he, like Joan, is also playing a role. Ted Crosby’s Father Berthold is perhaps a little too naïve, a little too ready to accept the presence of devilry in the world (whereas the Cardinal is just as ready to dismiss it), but his performance is strong and we see him battling his own convictions, trying to sort right from wrong and come to a course of action that does not fly in the face of his principles. Helen Tonkin’s Isabelle, very much the lady of the house, is sharp-tongued, but has also lost most of her children and there is a tangible sense of emotional pain in her performance. She is less inclined to accept Joan’s story than most of the others, but she is willing to fight and die for her convictions if the need arises. James Collette’s Gerard, the village constable and one-time coward at Orléans, has a fierce bluster to him, yet we can see the struggle inside his character, as he is first asked to confirm Joan is who she says she is, and then when the two of them are left alone together and the truth comes out. Dave Kirkham’s Felix seems a close cousin of Polonius, or Dickens’ Mr Dorrit, and there is something endearing about his dithering and constant attempts to keep the peace of his house and village. Kit Bennett’s Therese is perhaps the key to the play’s conclusion; called ‘the mouse,’ she barely says a word, but when she does every single one of them counts. While not as naïve as everyone assumes, there is a charm to her child-like innocence and the final moments are proof that, like every good story and legend, this one will keep being told. Kitty Hopwood’s Marie and Bonnie Kellett’s Bernadette seem perhaps too similar in function to both be crucial to the plot’s unfolding, though that is not to disparage their performance as both are strong, as they play their characters with honesty and emotional conviction.
There are strong overtones of Arthur Miller’s Crucible in the plot and progression of Gilchrist’s play, whether consciously or not, but that is not to disparage Joan, Again for it is a strong play. Whereas The Crucible intertwined the personal story of John Proctor’s infidelity with the larger story of the Salem witch-hunt to great effect, Gilchrist keeps his scope small, focusing instead on the household and these nine characters as their lives and paths intersect. Though effective, it does seem at times slightly overwritten, and perhaps a slight trimming down of some scenes could make it tighter.
Seemingly built on the idea of acting and assuming roles, Gilchrist’s frequent iterations of this notion do not lessen the conceit but rather strengthen it, as we realise that perhaps we too, the audience, are also playing roles, both in our private personal lives as much as in the theatre-space itself. Late in the second half, Keays’ Joan has a beautiful moment where she talks about her father’s career as a poor travelling player, living out of the back of a wagon, constantly on the road. A man may play a king, she says, a saint, an angel, a priest, a sinner, the devil, but that doesn’t mean he is any less a man. There are overtones of Shakespeare here too as much as Miller, but at its heart is a play about a girl named Joan. A girl who took the part of a man, defied the custom and expectations of her day and rallied an army behind her and kicked the English out of France, before being burnt as a heretic. A girl who fought the “passive acceptance of chauvinism and the status quo,” rose from the dead ten years later, only to become a legend. A girl who dreamt of stories, who became a story, and who inspired stories. A story about a need for something greater, a dream of something more than we can conceive of in our earthly lives.
A dream of a better world.
Who doesn’t want that?

Theatre playlist: 45. Talk To Me, Eric Serra

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