Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 11 July
, 2007

Whose bright idea was it to take a play by George Bernard Shaw and make it longer? Shaw will never be remembered as one of our terser or more gnomic playwrights. Just watching one of his plays, I am often reminded of the Emperor in Amadeus, only instead of "Too many notes, Mozart", I want to chide, "Too many words, Shaw."

Director Marianne Elliott is clearly aware of the prolixity of this 1923 play. However, rather than counter it with bolder strokes of the blue pencil, she has added visual/physical interpolations. These, though, do not counter the verbosity nor complement it; they clash with it. As a wordless prelude in which the cast appear to do t'ai-chi exercises with a set of wooden chapel chairs shades into the first scene in which a French commander debates with the fervently inspired Joan, the impression is not of an invigorating diversity of style; it is of two approaches that end up detracting from each other.

Time and again I found myself understanding Elliott's directorial choices but still concluding that they did not pay off. Given the limited budgets available in the Travelex £10 season, she needed to convey pell-mell battle without resorting to inevitably inadequate fight choreography. Once again, she opts for impressionism, with those chairs being used, and sheets of corrugated iron at each side of the stage battered, in a Stomp-esque percussive movement sequence. As an idea, this is powerful and effective; in practice, amid the Shavian rhetoric and argufying, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

One of Shaw's main notions comes into clearer focus today than perhaps at any time since the play's composition. He argues that one of the greatest threats to any system of rule comes from individuals who are convinced they have a direct hotline to the big truth, unmediated by hierarchies or interpretative structures. Here, the secular power of the invading English and the spiritual power of the Catholic Church may understand little and like less of each other, but they collude to dispatch Joan as a rebel and heretic. Today, on the other side of the coin from Shaw's sympathy for the individual rebel, we can see this theory borne out in numerous forms of Christian, Islamic and other religious and secular extremisms the world over. (Joan herself has an Irish accent.) But it underlines things too heavily for Harvey Brough's admittedly beautiful score to take a whistle-stop tour of devotional musics from around the world: here a Balkan plaint, there a Celtic air. And it is simply crass to take a cast dressed predominantly in vaguely mediaeval costumes and insert a microphone and stand together with harsh arc lights for Joan's trial.

Despite all this, Anne-Marie Duff is excellent as the Maid of Orleans. This is not a charismatic Joan so much as one of infectious ardour and indefatigable honesty, even when all turn against her. To record that her ultimate nemesis the Inquisitor is played by Oliver Ford Davies says it all: this is the kind of understated, forensic role Davies can do in his sleep, but thankfully gives full waking attention. As the Dauphin, later King Charles VII of France, Paul Ready fails to find a way of playing an ineffectual character without thereby giving an ineffectual performance. Elliott has put a great deal of thought into what the play means and what its staging needs, but where the different parts of her production should jell together, they abrade. And any such three-hour-plus production gives a huge hostage to fortune with its final line "How long, O lord, how long?"

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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