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Review: Shaw Festival’s Saint Joan enlivened by its central performance

Sara Topham as Joan with cast of Saint Joan.

David Cooper/Photo by David Cooper

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Saint Joan
Written by
Bernard Shaw
Genre
Play
Directed by
Tim Carroll
Actors
Sara Topham
Company
Shaw Festival
Venue
Festival Theatre
City
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Year
2017
Runs Until
Sunday, October 15, 2017

Insofar as a single production can be said to foretell anything, Saint Joan – which opened the Shaw Festival's season on Thursday night – is a sign of a shift at the Niagara-on-the-Lake repertory theatre company.

New artistic director Tim Carroll's first show of his tenure suggests a levelling of old hierarchies at the festival, a change that's refreshing at the very least.

There's a true ensemble feel to his Saint Joan that we haven't seen on the festival's mainstage in a while – new actors bringing their own personalities and styles to the stage, a few imported major performers challenging ideas of who the stars are, and no one either standing out or sticking out, for better or for worse.

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Set in the 15th century, Saint Joan is Bernard Shaw's 1923 chronicle play about farm girl Joan of Arc (Sara Topham), who is told by her voices to lead the siege of Orléans, crown the Dauphin in Rheims Cathedral and drive the English out of France.

Shaw follows Joan on her quest as a series of men – military, religious and monarchical – are convinced by her and find rational reasons to back her; and then, once Orléans is captured, discover new ones to abandon her to the Inquisition and the English.

Shaw famously described his play as having "no villains" – even the Inquisitor (Jim Mezon) gets to give a most sympathetic account of why heresy must be stamped out and tries his best to keep Joan from burning. The playwright highlights Joan as a destabilizing figure whose direct relationship with God and belief in a land called France threatened both the church and the feudal order – a proto-Protestant and nationalist.

But what makes this one of his most satisfying plays amid all the chatter about such subjects by a parade of powerful men is that it offers up the irresistible and feminine force of Joan.

Topham, a veteran of the Stratford Festival, offers a variety of tones for Joan – a yoga hippie at first, curling her leg up underneath her as she compels a squire (the excellent Allan Louis) to give her a horse, armour and soldiers. Later, short-haired and crouching, there's something Peter Pan-like in her as if she's readying for flight as well as fight. Her most startling scene comes when she speaks directly of her visions to commander Dunois (Gray Powell) – and, wide-eyed, wet-eyed and fervent, seems to indeed be channelling something otherworldly.

It's not an entirely coherent performance – but Topham's an unusual actor in that she often floats around characters, rather than fully inhabiting them. How much she enlivens the play, however, is entirely clear in the one scene from which she is absent, which contains Shaw's clearest expression of the play's ideas, but is dramatically dull as dishwater.

Carroll has worked on thrust stages at Globe Theatre in London and the Stratford Festival – and the set Judith Bowden has designed for him here suggests he may be pining for one in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It plunks a black diamond down on top of the stage with a pointy tip facing the audience that actors stand on to soliloquize. Bowden's stunning set is an abstract one: horizontal lines of light, a vertical pole that plunges up and down, a black abyss with a big white cube that hovers in the air and occasionally descends to stage level.

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Twice the entire cast – save Joan – is encased in that white cube – a rather literal illustration of what an outside-the-box figure she is. (Later, when she is burned, society finally finds a container for her.)

There are some lovely performances from the well-known and familiar here – Tom McCamus effortlessly charismatic as the wry voice of English feudalism; Powell bringing both sense and a sense of sex to Dunois; and the marvellous Wade Bogert-O'Brien charmingly petulant as the Dauphin, hopping up and down off a high-chair throne.

Most encouraging are solid debuts from Karl Ang as a chaplain who realizes too late that he has no taste for cruelty; and a sympathetic Andrew Lawrie in a variety of roles. The previous regime had the bad habit of giving small parts to new actors who didn't fit a particular mould – and making them look bad in them.

The actors bring their own flavour to the stage and speak in their own accents, whether they are playing French or English – which might be confusing if the English characters weren't constantly declaring their Englishness. Carroll's production allows the audience largely to listen to Shaw, appreciate or get irritated by all he has to say and the style with which he says it. What it doesn't do is have a strong take on the play.

Saint Joan is from the beginning of Shaw's slide toward anti-democratic attitudes, where his justifiable suspicion of elites paired up with a disturbing fascination for men of "iron nerve and fanatical conviction." The fact that Joan comes in the form of a teenage girl makes her a palatable heroine – but as Shaw scholar Leonard Conolly points out, she is a "nationalistic, populist, anti-establishment, intuitive leader" who declares that God "gave us our countries and our languages, and meant us to keep to them."

If there's something frightening about Joan, rather than merely fascinating, it's absent here from Carroll's convivial production and Topham's smiling performance – and that's a shame as Joanism seems to be in the ascendant.

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Saint Joan continues to Oct. 15 (shawfest.com).

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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