Review: Joan of Arc by The Faction

I’m a big fan of The Faction, and their production of The Talented Mr. Ripley, with which Joan of Arc is playing in repertoire, is my must-see show this Spring. Sadly, though, Joan of Arc doesn’t meet the same standard.

The Faction are dedicated to producing the works of Schiller, and their previous productions of Mary Stuart, Fiesco and The Robbers have done much to revive the playwright’s reputation as relevant to modern theatre. Unfortunately, Joan of Arc, based on Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans adds nothing to this.

Partly, it’s down to the play. One cannot help but compare it to the George Bernard Shaw masterpiece, and it doesn’t stand up well. Gone is the trial scene, the pivotal dramatic crescendo of the story in which the audience is drawn into a natural empathy for the underdog, borne of outrage at the unfairness of her treatment, and admiration for the way in which she faces it. Instead, Schiller’s version departs from history, creating a somewhat incredible and under-dramatised dilemma for the Maid, who allegedly falls in love on the battlefield, instantaneously and abstrusely, with an English Knight, leading her to shift her loyalties and lose her conviction in a way which leaves her audience incredulous and baffled. Gone, too, is her death at the stake. Instead, Schiller has her killed in battle, justifying his departure from history with an epilogue question to his audience about their own understanding of legend, which does nothing to redeem his choice.

Unfortunately, though, it’s not just the script that disappoints. For the play to work, Joan has to epitomise a dichotemy: at once naïve and wise, vulnerable and powerful, feminine and masculine; the audience must be drawn to her as are the other characters in the play, otherwise their belief in her is meaningless. It’s no easy thing to achieve and, sadly, Kate Sawyer is totally miscast. She is at her best when portraying strong women, but lacks the depth and detail for this role.

Disappointingly, as an audience we don’t invest in many of the characters, but Clare Latham’s inability to work with anything other than (one presumes) her native American accent particularly jars, especially when she doubles contrasting characters.  Sadly, very few of the cast shone in this production, the honours going to Natasha Rickman doubling the Dauphin and Queen Isabel, and Christopher Hughes as Burgundy, both of whom brought much-needed life to the performance.

Also missing is The Faction’s trademark physicality and visual imagery. The action is overly static and the most pervasive metaphor is the use of dust and clay, but co-Directors Mark Leipacher and Rachel Valentine Smith do nothing to set it up before inflicting it on the audience. At the beginning of the original, Bertrand enters carrying a helmet which becomes Joan’s catalyst in putting away her life of simplicity and taking-up arms. In this production, a nameless character holds a lump of wet clay in their bare hands, referring to it as a ‘helmet’ when all we can see is something akin to a turd. Once Joan takes it and smears it over the top of her head, the metaphor becomes clear, but by that time the audience is already lost.

This imagery also fails through the rest of the production. In ‘taking up her sword’, Joan’s arm is smeared with the same clay, but it’s never really credible as a weapon, leaving her parading about the stage with a rigid arm and the audience wondering why the fight scenes don’t convince. In fact, the only point at which this metaphor works is during Talbot’s death scene, where he scatters dust to symbolise his loss of blood and, ultimately, life.

At an hour and three-quarters with no interval – and I really don’t see the justification for that choice, artistically – the play drags unforgiveably, in part due to the lack of light and shade, peaks and troughs of pace, and partly due to an absence of just plain drama. Perhaps, after the inspirational Talented Mr. Ripley, I was expecting too much but, even taking that into account, this production doesn’t deserve more than two stars. In The Faction’s defence, every company is entitled to a duff production at some point – it’s the natural result of taking artistic risks – and I hope that this means that in their next Rep season all three plays will be as universally stunning as Mr. Ripley. But, sadly, this production doesn’t endear me to Schiller, which is a shame as I was beginning to appreciate his work.

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