“How long, O Lord. How long?” is Andrew’s most frequently uttered invocation on arrival at a theatre.
It turns out that he has been quoting Shaw (and St Joan) all along, although he claims not have been aware of the fact? Great minds…?
The Whingers had been dreading this one. Phil even rushed into the National Theatre information desk to ask the actual (as opposed to advertised) running time in the hope of allaying Andrew’s fears.
“3 hours 10 minutes,” was the reply though it had apparently been running even longer.
Fearing a massive revolt from the already fairly revolting Andrew, Phil then popped the million dollar question:”If we stay to the end, will we actually get to see her burn on stage?”
Fortunately (and unusually) the beleaguered front-of-house staffer maintained a sense of humour in the face of Phil’s inquisition. “Well, you get the idea of it,” he replied tactfully, before quipping: “They have to have a different actress every night”
Witty riposte notwithstanding, it was with heavy hearts and a sense of foreboding that Whingers took their seats for Saint Joan in anticipation of a characteristically wordy and relentlessly pedestrian Shavian marathon.
Both Whingers had planned ahead for this. Andrew had smuggled in a set of bellows with which to hasten the conflagration should it all drag on too much.
Phil – in case the Whingers made it through to the end – had packed an eight-foot fork and crumpets and marshmallows to toast by the glowing faggots of Joan’s bonfire. Obsessed with his thesis of on stage eating he thought he’d add a twist to his theme and toast some goodies from the stalls for what he presumed would be a flagging audience desperate for carbs and sugar.
How wrong could the Whingers be? It turned out to be rather wonderful. Indeed, they hadn’t been this wrong since they pre-judged Boeing Boeing.
It started worryingly with some live Enya-with-balls music, cow bells and a singer and then – as though the play weren’t long enough as written – there was a scene in which the ensemble very slowly dismantled a pile of chairs, handing each one very slowly down the line to place them very slowly at the edge of the set. Andrew made a mental note not to use the National Theatre should it ever go into the removals business. One’s bibelots would arrive intact but not for centuries.
Anyway, it proved a momentary blip. Rae Smith’s excellent set with dead trees and a raked charred wooden platform suggest Joanie’s fate from the outset.
The revolve is used effectively and sparingly (including one rather brilliant scene in which the actors revolve very slowly for the entire scene).
Directrix Marianne Elliot has made some excellent staging choices. Rather than have the usual tedious on-stage battles that rarely work in theatre, a flag is wafted around Les Miserables style, followed by a Stomp-inspired percussion using chairs and corrugated iron. It’s the sort of thing that the Whingers usually find a bit embarrassing but on this occasion it was surprisingly agreeable.
She also takes the opportunity to tease out comedy where appropriate The scene set in the English Camp proved just that. Camp. And utterly delightful.
The fey Dauphin (Paul Ready) and the anxious brother (Jamie Ballard) also get to play up the light relief. Indeed, even the Shaw’s discussions prove absorbing and witty, yet it’s never at the expense of the drama.
Who knew Shaw could be so darn entertaining? Certainly not the Whingers (although Andrew has very fond memories of seeing Kate O’Mara in Heartbreak House at Malvern a billion years ago).
So, to Joanie. Although disappointed to discover that their suggestions for a last minute casting change had fallen on deaf ears, Anne-Marie Duff (from TV’s Shameless, apparently) quickly won them round.
She not only looks physically right as Joan but manages to be strident without irritating and is convincingly inspirational and her Irish accent somehow seems exactly right for the role.
She even makes the voices in her head seem believable (but then Andrew hears a voice going “blah blah blah” whenever he’s in Phil’s company so it’s not all that unusual).
Being mean-spirited and hard to please, it’s rare for the Whingers to praise in poster-worthy terms, but we have to say it: it’s a star making performance. Duff’s anguish in the trial scene was heart-wrenching for Phil and both Whingers were literally on the edges of their seats (although this was partly because they were seated behind the tallest man in the world).
There are plenty of other delights too. In one scene a puppet kingfisher is wafted over the stalls and accidentally (probably) hit an audience member in the face. The Whingers were of course in seventh heaven and already this morning, Phil has spent several hours setting up an ambulance-chasing no-win no-fee business and has booked seats for the entire run.
Being Shaw, this play is full of ideas but ideas aren’t the Whingers’ strong point, so we’ll skip over them except to say that they were all very interesting indeed.
Playwright and “Textual Advisor” (fantastic!!! eat your heart out Royal Court) to this production Samuel Adamson has poked his head above the parapet in the programme notes by patronisingly stating:
“The blogging-classes have it that Shaw is out-of-fashion, not just as a political thinker but as a dramatist.”
Well, perhaps he was right to a degree. The Whingers (who are never patronising) arrived with pre-conceived ideas about Saint Joan only to have them happily incinerated, leaving them seeing Shaw as a witty radical, ahead of his time and certainly not the dreary wordsmith they’d expected.
During the interval and after the show they cornered fellow blogger Natasha of Interval Drinks for a sanity-check. While Natasha wouldn’t commit on the topic of their sanity in general, she did indicate that she shared many of their views on the play in particular.
So, yes, the Whingers really enjoyed themselves and they were not alone. The packed theatre gave a roaring reception too.
Hats off to everyone – but most of all to Duff and Elliot. A miracle really happened at the National last night. Phil even liked Oliver Ford Davies (the Inquisitor) for once.
Phil has a bit of a history with Saint Joan.
He claims to have studied it at school but Andrew believes Phil actually means they have a shared history by virtue of having been around at the same time.
Phil also saw an Oxford University production of it many years ago. Not, of course that he attended the university you understand, Phil, who remembers very little these days, does remember being very bored by that production.
Phil had last seen Saint Joan toasting on the National’s stage many years ago in the enjoyably execrable musical Jean Seberg. Seberg of course played Joanie in Otto Preminger’s famous film, Saint Joan and in the ill-conceived musical was burnt on stage before Preminger’s (played by John Savident long before his fame as Coronation Street‘s butcher “I say, I say”, Fred Elliot) camera.
PS: If you’re deciding whether to go, for God’s sake don’t base your decision on The National’s online trailer.