Saint Joan at the Donmar is a stylish but forgettable modern retelling of the Bernard Shaw classic

 
Steve Dinneen
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Saint Joan
3.0

Gemma Arterton is the star attraction in this stylish but ultimately forgettable production of Bernard Shaw’s dense and unusual play.

The action is positively shoehorned into the present day, with the court of the future King Charles becoming a trading house called Dauphin Holdings. This unexpected twist provides the backdrop for some excellent early jokes, with the opening conversation about France’s hens’ inability to lay being presented as a crisis in the egg market, introduced by a Bloomberg news bulletin projected behind the stage.

The collection of barrow-boy brokers, all chugging Redbull and wearing 80s-style braces, are a lot of fun, especially Matt Bardock as the obnoxious Squire. But director Josie Rourke doesn’t seem entirely sure where she’s going with the conceit; how Joan – always in traditional dress – fits into all this is unclear, and the contemporary setting is all but abandoned in the play’s more serious second half.

The production feels like it’s perpetually on the cusp of making some important statement about current affairs that it’s never quite able to articulate. The point is presumably that one shouldn’t be afraid to speak truth to power, but it seems like an awfully elaborate setup for such a sweeping, worthy sentiment.

The revolving stage adds dynamism to what could otherwise have been a very static evening (all the battles take part off-stage), but the nuances of the text tend to get lost amid the stylistic choices, and a series of strong performances somehow amount to less than the sum of their parts. Arterton, for instance, is a charismatic Joan but her part is steadfastly one-dimensional, a plucky young zealot who rarely falters from her belief in the voices that visit her.

Saint Joan perhaps suffers from opening during such a strong season of theatre, with some exceptional female leads including Glenda Jackson (King Lear), Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler), Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams (both Mary Stuart). This production isn’t bad by any means, but it falls far short of essential viewing.

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