Saturday, September 24, 2016

St. Joan (Lyric Theatre) - a fabulous play about the 1430s written in 1922 that still speaks to 2016

Resetting a play written in 1922 about events in the fifteenth century by dropping it into a different period, messing around with the parts and genders as well as performing it against a modern office set should have been a recipe for disaster. But the Lyric’s St. Joan works brilliantly and the audience suspend their disbelief in the collision of location, time and vernacular.
“There’s something about Joan.”

Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s Joan of Arc is a mesmerising figure. She is steered by the voices of saints, yet cuts a contemporary figure as the apparent madwoman strides about the stage in increasingly androgynous clothes (that always bear a small cross) and casts her spell on all she speaks to. She foresees and empowers changes in the court, military victory and yet is an anti-establishment figure who turns the world upside down and the sorceress ultimately must be stopped.

It’s a story of church and state, sometimes collaborating, sometimes conspiring. It’s a story of patriarchy and power, of generals and their armies, archbishops and their priests. Law and rules are applied without sense or challenge. The action flits across from France to England to observe both sides of the battle.

Bernard Shaw’s text has been adapted by Philip O’Sullivan (who also magnificently plays the Inquisitor in the heresy trial scenes). Characters are gently introduced in small blocks over long scenes that are a welcome change from some modern fast-switching theatre. Most of the cast double up on roles. Abigail McGibbon is particularly provocative as she plays roles that would have been male in the original. And this is where the play steals its contemporary edge, portraying a female military leader and priestess who still wouldn’t exist in their respective 2016 organisations. [Breaking news: the British Army appointed its first female Major General in 2015.]

What ties St. Joan together is the attention to detail. Grace Smart’s award-winning set both enhances the width and height of the Lyric’s stage. A water cooler on one wall mirrors the fire extinguisher (a subtle spoiler) on the other. Church bells are replaced with phones ringing. Heavy office furniture is flung around to create new spaces for each scene. The raised section at the back of the stage created an overlord’s eyrie from which those in power can watch the action without getting their hands dirty. The symbolism is deep if you have time to study it. Ciaran Bagnell’s lighting design deserves a mention, overcoming the restriction of the suspended office ceiling and creating that familiar overly bright office environment. Nice clouds too.

Snatches of dialogue seem very relevant in a post-EU referendum world, little Englanders and obsession with border security. Written in the wake of the Easter Rising, Shaw’s critique of the collusion of temporal powers and faith institutions seems quite contemporary in Northern Ireland as moral issues are fought over in court and across the island as corporate battles replace military conflicts.

St. Joan runs at the Lyric Theatre until 8 October and is well worth seeing at least once and possible twice to properly wring out its brilliance.


Anonymous said...

You really should have some originality when writing a review. Waiting until you've read other reviews and plagiarising the bits you thought were any good is at the very least just lazy and lacking imagination. Tsk. Shame on you.

Alan Meban said...

Review based on the notes scribbled during the performance last Friday night - but lazily only typed up this morning in Bristol. If you want to make allegations put your name to them.

Denise McCourt said...

Good retort Alan