Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw

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Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw (2011).  Dir. Jonquil Panting.  Perf. Lyndsey Marshal, Paul Ritter, Blake Ritson.  BBC Radio 3, 25 Jan. 2015.  BBCiPlayer to 24 Feb. 2015.

I first encountered Shaw’s classic way back in 1977 while studying French Literature at school, in a revival where Eileen Atkins played the central character as an exceptionally strong-willed personality, the kind that would brook no argument from those out to force her to recant on her principles.  Although forced into admission in the climactic court scene, we were well aware that her confession had been extracted under duress; when she learned that she was to be committed to prison for life, she reasserted her beliefs in divine protection.  The last scene – where she returns to the stage after having been burnt at the stake – was something of an anticlimax, as we already knew that her memory would live on, due to her sheer strength of will.


Jonquil Panting’s radio production conceived the central character very differently.  As portrayed by Lyndsay Marshal, she came across as a teenager with plenty of conviction and passion but noticeably lacking in social graces.  To the fathers of the Catholic Church, she was nothing more than a nuisance, someone to be brushed away like a fly off one’s sleeve.  For the English invaders she was a heretic, simply because she could inspire the French into a series of unexpected victories in battle.  She did not seem physically or emotionally equipped for the task, but she nonetheless succeeded.


This production was thus focused as much on the politics of representation as religious truth.  Joan threatened the patriarchal order of the Church, and hence needed to be cast out or forced to submit to their will.  The court scene was especially powerful, with a whole raft of senior figures, including Cauchon (Paul Hilton), the Chaplain (Paul Ritter), and the Inquisitor (Sean Baker) ranged against her.  Yet still she managed to sustain her integrity, not by actively resisting them, but by trusting in her beliefs.  This is what made Joan such a potentially threatening force; she refused to behave in a ‘masculine’ (i.e. aggressive) manner, despite all provocations.


Although sworn enemies of the French, the English invaders regarded her in much the same way.  She was a heretic, simply because she had assumed a role not hitherto associated with any woman – leading an army.  In their opinion women existed solely to bear children and look after the house while the men went off to fight.  In such sequences Shaw’s drama had a particularly contemporary resonance about it; how many women today suffer equal indignities at the hands of their male counterparts, especially in the corridors of power?


Panting’s production further complicated the politics of gender by portraying the Dauphin (Blake Ritson) as a booby, unable – as well as unwilling – to stand up to his courtiers, even though he had the power to do so.  He was the arch-advocate of laissez-faire politics, despite the fact that this “unmanly” behavior was driving his country to rack and ruin.  The only way to transform him was by galvanizing him into action; Joan managed to accomplish this by encouraging him to resist his nobles, and even to blow a raspberry at them.  A childish gesture, to be sure; but one which gave the Dauphin a new-found sense of authority.  Such successes were bound to enrage the French nobility, as well as the church, especially as they were inspired by a woman’s example.


Panting emphasized Shaw’s facility with words; as in many of his mature plays, the author was concerned to express moral arguments about the importance of free will and toleration.  On the other hand this revival suggested that words were weapons even more damaging than swords and spears, as the Church elders tried to break Joan down with sanctimonious expressions of piety that had little or nothing to do with faith and everything to do with power.  The court scene resembled an interrogation in which Joan had little if no opportunity to answer; a familiar strategy beloved of any authoritarian regime.


In this revival, the final sequence, where Joan re-encounters many of her adversaries in that limbo separating heaven from hell, assumed particular significance.  While we understood that the French church had come to their senses and recognized her innocence, we felt that she was still a potentially threatening force.  Her very innocence seemed to undermine their attempts to forge religious unity.  Hence she was still kept on the margins, at a safe distance from the ecclesiastical mainstream.


The irony of this stance was palpable; it was Joan who represented what we might describe as “true” – personal yet passionate – religion, while her one-time opponents still upheld an order which, by the time Shaw wrote the play in the Twenties, seemed even more archaic than it had done nearly five centuries previously. 


The play’s subject-matter seems equally significant now, at a time when individuals of all religions are often being forced into accepting beliefs that they don’t support in the name of “unity” and “strength.”