Writer: Friedrich Schiller
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Joan of Arc – saint, warrior and saviour of France or demon, witch and murderer? Famous historical characters are constantly being reinterpreted by historians and dramatists as fashion alters our perspective on the past. Where once the lives of history’s ‘great men’ were written as determinist narratives of victory and success, there is now a greater focus on emphasising their all too human characteristics; the vanities, foibles and failings that fit our modern preference for the anti-hero.
The Faction’s repertory season at the New Diorama has fit nicely into this tradition examining identity across its three plays, Romeo &Juliet, The Talented Mr Ripley and now its final piece Joan of Arc based on Schiller’s Maid of Orleans. As the play opens France is at war; The Dauphin is on the verge of retreat all but defeated by his rival The Duke of Burgundy who has allied with England. Just in time, a lowly shepherdess named Joan believes she has been called by God to lead France to a pre-destined victory and she sets about healing the rift between the warring families and defeating the English. But as victory approaches Joan’s spiritual belief comes up against her human fallibility and France decides whether a peaceable nation still needs its warrior-woman talisman.
It seems The Faction have saved the best for last in this gripping production which combines their best performances with a tight and pacey direction. A shrewd decision to run this without an interval keeps the action moving swiftly and helps to build the tension while holding the audience in its thrall for nearly two hours. There’s very little extraneous or showy design, just the actors and the text which impressively convey the danger and bustle of the fighting camps in scenes reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Henry V on the night before Agincourt.
This staging of Joan of Arc may be effectively simple but it just adds all the more emphasis to the few techniques they do employ here. This company are renowned for their innovative approach and there are some nicely suggested fighting scenes done in slow-motion – an interesting contrast to the fierce battles in their Romeo and Juliet. Notable too is the figure of Joan who is almost always given a heavenly glow, palms outstretched and the use of mud in the hair as a helmet cleverly reminding us not just of her humble origins but the system of belief that was sustaining her success.
The ensemble cast is certainly at its best here with Kate Sawyer’s Joan maintaining a serene calm amid the battle chaos before resigning herself to her own destiny. A nice touch having Queen Isabel and her loathed son, the Dauphin, played by Natasha Rickman, while there are more impressive performances from Christopher Tester in a variety of rôles including Joan’s father. Christopher York builds on his charming Romeo as the fiercely devoted Dunois, while fresh from his Off West End nomination for Ripley, Christopher Hughes is a dark and dangerous Duke of Burgundy. All things must end this play tells us and sadly that is true of The Faction’s repertory season, but as with Joan herself, this production will send them out in a blaze of glory.
Runs Until 28 February| PhotoHolly Wren