by Lynn on May 26, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Tim Carroll
Designed by Judith Bowden
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Music direction and original music by Claudio Vena
Cast: Karl Ang
Wade Bogert-O’Brien
Benedict Campbell
Andrew Lawrie
Allan Louis
Emily Lukasik
Tom McCamus
Jeff Meadows
Jim Mezon
Gray Powell
P J Prudat
Ben Sanders
Graeme Somerville
Steven Sutcliffe
Jonathan Tan
Sara Topham

A striking set that is more puzzling in the context of the play than it is effective in telling the story, staging that seems awkward in actually establishing relationships, with some wonderful performances.

The Story. In 1429 AD, in France a 17 year old peasant girl named Joan hears the voice of God, plus those of Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine instructing her to put the Dauphin on the throne of France making him king, and also to lead the battered French army against the English and run them off French soil.

She presents herself to Captain Robert de Beaudricourt saying she needs a horse and soldiers’ clothes for the journey to the Dauphin. She has already convinced some hard-nosed soldiers that she is the real deal and is capable of doing what she says. She wins over the captain, and the Dauphin and then the French army. But her biggest battle is with the Catholic Church which prefers to do its own interpreting of the word of God and not through a stubborn, passionate, smart teenager. This is the stumbling block. While Joan has pure honesty and vision on her side, the church and members of the state have cunning, greed, wiliness and political maneuvering in their side to get what they want and what they want is Joan to be our of sight and mind and the best way of doing that is to find her guilty of heresy and burn her at the stake.

The Production. Designer Judith Bowden’s geometric set pieces are initially arresting, and certainly in Kevin Lamotte’s eerie, haunting lighting. The stage of the Festival Theatre is rather large but the action of the play happens on a smaller square platform set in the middle of the stage but with the square turned so that a point of the square points downstage. A large illuminated cube takes up a quarter of the stage and in one scene in Act I and one in Act II the cube slowly rises up revealing a group of smarmy people who are there to challenge Joan. When the people are revealed the cube is raised and remains suspended for the rest of the play. In Act II an illuminated column lowers down from the flies and later in the scene it raises revealing a character. For most of the scene it remains suspended and illuminated in space, unused and mystifying in its suspended intent, and no this is not ‘visual poetry.’ This is more like spatial clutter. Judith Bowden is a wonderful designer, but her set here is more confusing that useful in establishing the play.

Saint Joan is directed by Tim Carroll, the new Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. Tim Carroll has written an extensive program note citing the radical set of the first production of the play in 1923. He mentions that Edward Gordon Craig’s “simple geometric set designs created a revolution around the turn of the twentieth century.” He also cites …”Josef Svoboda, the Czech lighting designer, (who) would seize on the possibilities of pure objects in space to create a new visual poetry.” The work of these two theatre pioneers informs Tim Carroll’s production.

The problem is that over most of the century following these radical moves, the theatre has created its own design geniuses who have moved the form forward. So while these images of illuminated geometric shapes suspended in air were revolutionary in 1923, they are simply odd in 2017.

The cube is there it seems only for the effect in Act I and II when the cube rises to reveal a group of people who will serve the scene. Aside from that the cube floats in air, not symbolic or poetic of anything. In another scene in Act II a cube with a scene of sorts on its sides sits in the corner of the square playing area. Is it supposed to symbolize something, a place? Hard to tell since the images are not clear.

In the scene changes a shiny ‘wall’ descends and when lit, looks opaque and not clearly reflective. If anything it distorts the image reflected in it. Is that the intent? Mystifying.
It all seems an effort to dazzle with little point.

I have seen much of Tim Carroll’s direction, at our Stratford and over the years that he worked at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, England, when Mark Rylance was the artistic director.

When Carroll directs Shakespeare there is a formality to it. When he came to Stratford, he put great store in Original Practices, in other words, doing Shakespeare as it would have been done in Shakespeare’s day—candles for lighting; leaving the lights on in the theatre and on stage; a stylized way of staging the production. But as he also said with a bit of a wink when he was at Stratford no one knows how they really produced shows in Shakespeare’s day, so he could also just make it up.

With this production of Saint Joan at least Carroll seems to be using the same staging techniques, and my eye-brows knit.

For example, the person at the centre of a scene is placed in the centre of the playing area. The others also in the scene are placed around the edges of the playing area, about several feet away. They converse in this awkward positioning. Sometimes a character will step forward to be close to the person in the centre, talk, then move back. Eye-brow-knitting to be sure. Is this placement so as not to obstruct our vision of the speaker? To establish that the person in the middle is the focal point? Do we really need such artificial blocking? Does no one think the audience couldn’t figure out who is the centre of the scene by staging it so that it actually looks like live characters are engaging? The result is that relationships are not organically established. This makes Saint Joan look like a museum piece, which it is not.

Often Tim Carroll places a character downstage facing the audience but talking to a character behind them, then the person turns upstage to face the person talked to. It all looks so awkward.

Sara Topham plays Joan. Topham shows us a Joan who is serious, focused and intelligent. There is an effort to suggest this is a teenager when Topham first appears to the Captain and sits in a chair with one foot on the seat and her other foot tucked underneath her. However I don’t get the sense of this head-strong, fiercely committed teenager. The point with Joan is that she is a kid who has convinced several savvy men to follow her into battle. I don’t want the actress to be 17, but I do need to see that driven, compelling attitude of a teen who changed the course of a country. It is missing with Sara Topham.

Gray Powell as Dunois is a war-weary, smart soldier who is charmed and convinced by Joan, but he knows the way of war, and foreshadows what will happen. Steven Sutcliffe is impassioned, sombre and thoughtful as Captain La Hire, one of Joan’s stalwart followers. Wade Bogert-O’Brien as Dauphin (later Charles VII) is boyish, beautifully weak-willed, and almost child-like. To accentuate that child-like quality, the Dauphin often has to jump up and sit in a tall chair (a high chair?) suggesting his throne. It’s good for a laugh or two, but only just.

And what’s with all that squatting that Joan, Dunois, Captain La Hire do? They would be speaking then out of nowhere Joan or the others squat almost to the ground. Yoga poses in 15th century France?! My eye-brows are crocheting.

Comment. This being George Bernard Shaw, there is lots of philosophizing about the rules of the state, the church, religion, politics and the details of war. And this play certainly is applicable to today, just in the sense of one person convinced they have the solution of making France great again. Shaw’s arguments about politics and his prescience in how the world, the church, government and politics work are startling in how immediate the play is to our time.

I found there is a lot of effort to make this production seem provocative, certainly with the illuminate, floating set pieces. In spite of that effort, I think this production of Saint Joan is plodding. The result is a disappointment.

The Shaw Festival presents:

Opened: May 25, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 15, 2017.
Cast: 16; 13 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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