Review – Saint Joan, National Theatre

Tuesday 10 July 2007

st_joan_149s2rqso.jpg“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.

istockphoto_465936_toasting_crumpets.jpgPhil – 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.

Historial footnote

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.

20 Responses to “Review – Saint Joan, National Theatre”

  1. jo Says:

    Genius! and funny to boot, thw Whingers are just what I need in an office devoid of humour. Thanks for the heads up on the flag waving and chair removal from the on-line trailer I was wondering what on earth that was about.

  2. City Slicker Says:

    Hysterical post as usual. You guys need your own stand-up routine! Was sorry to miss out but so relieved to hear it wasn’t what I expected. Looking forward to seeing it tonight.

  3. Pleased to see you enjoyed this one as it’s one of my favourite plays. Like Phil I studied it in my schooldays and it was a revelation to discover a school text that was actually and genuinely funny in a post 17th century way. The dialogue was witty and sharp in a way that to a schoolkid it just seemed like watching “Blackadder”.

    Years later I had the pleasure of seeing Imogen Stubbs burn as Joan at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow and although her performance was excellent it’s the staging and lighting that remain with me.

    Great play that isn’t performed enough…

  4. Sam London Says:

    Watching this fabulous production I thought.. Kenneth Williams got great reviews as the Dauphin in a renowned production with Maggie Smith as Joan. And then somehow ended up in Carry on Emmanuelle.
    Is there a lesson in that for us all? I somehow doubt that Anne Marie Duff is modelling her career on Babs Windsor though.

  5. That’s about spot on, actually. I’m not so sure that “the blogging-classes” (which is, let’s face it, most classes) are wrong to say that Shaw is out-of-fashion, not just as a political thinker but as a dramatist, though. Well: a) he is, and b) as a political thinker, at least – good.

  6. Sean Says:

    Totally agree that this is a star making performance, hopefully the right casting directors will see how superb she is, but I hope she won’t be lost to the stage. Anne-Marie Duff is just wonderful.

    As for out of fashion, maybe. But we do have some Shaw served up relatively regularly, I’m seeing Pygmalion tomorrow.

    I’d like to see The Lark, now Anouilh is out of fashion for sure.

    I have a review on my blog:

  7. jmc Says:

    I am glad to see you saying nice things about Shaw, as I am one member of the blogging classes who has ALWAYS written positive things about the fabulous GBS, as I like 3 initialled playwrights. I was wobbling a bit about seeing this, due to having see the lead actress in The Soldier’s Fortune (or at least the first act of it), but perhaps she redeems herself here. I’m definitely off the Bath to see Pygmalion!

  8. @Sam: you’re being rather harsh going straight from Saint Joan to Carry on Emmanuelle. 20th century British culture would have been so much the poorer without the intervening Carry On films. So think on.

    @ Andrew Haydon: I’m still struggling about that “blogging classes” thing. On reflection, it means nothing. It’s SA trying to be clever and no-one is the slightest bit impressed. What does a textual advisor do anyway?

    @ Sean: thanks for the link to your site.

    @jmc: Now you’re talking. Apart from you and GBS, who are the other 3 initialled playwrights you like?

  9. jmc Says:

    “Apart from you and GBS, who are the other 3 initialled playwrights you like?”

    Stephen Sharkey signs himself SBS, doesn’t he? And don’t forget, Harley Granville Barker, HGB.

  10. and which of SBS’s and HGB’s plays do you like best and why?

  11. Sean Says:

    Note to self: Surely Saint Joan taught us the vices of self promotion?

  12. jmc Says:

    “and which of SBS’s and HGB’s plays do you like best and why?”

    I like SBS’s The May Queen best, because its the only one I have read. I intend to blog it once I have finished reading Fin’s play & seen Ben Musgrave’s play in Manchester – a special blogging playwrights appreciation blog.

    Of HGB’s plays, I like The Marrying of Ann Leete best. You can see why here –

    The great thing about both HGB and GBS is that their writing has an incredible musical quality about it. Someone (was it Ruskin?) said that “all great art aspires to the quality of music.” HGB structures his plays like symphonies. In GBS, the music is in the great arias he gives his actors to speak, which have an incredible Mozartian quality.

  13. @jmc: Damn. You’ve got an answer for everything, haven’t you?

  14. jmc Says:

    “@jmc: Damn. You’ve got an answer for everything, haven’t you?”

    It is an annoying trait of mine.

  15. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    ALW…aren’t we forgetting him? Or just trying to?
    He structures his musicals like, well…people say they have Puccinian qualities.

  16. jmc Says:

    “ALW…aren’t we forgetting him?”

    The exception which proves the rule…

  17. […] did also see the universally praised Saint Joan – which is nearly as good as you might ask a production of St Joan in the […]

  18. SJ Says:

    Well, let’s face it, you were never gonna like it, you bunch of screw ups.

  19. Ummm. But we all did like it, SJ. Loved it, in fact. What are you going on about?

  20. christine Says:

    Ann Marie Duff was wonderful but the play is maddeningly slow in places. The scene in the English camp wasn’t camp, it was like a really ponderous bit of stand-up comedy blended with a bad night on Question Time

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