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
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