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BWW Review: SAINT JOAN, Donmar Warehouse

George Bernard Shaw's 1923 play about the rise and fall of Joan of Arc closes the Donmar's autumn season, following One Night In Miami... Its main focus is female emancipation, highlighting the struggles that Joan faced to make her way through a man's world - as well as doing her best to stay true to her religion and loyalty to her country.

Opening with Joan kitted out in medieval armour and praying, possibly on the eve of battle, we switch to the modern day and Baudricourt's 'court'. Joan (by then also being called "The Maid") is attempting to gather an army to raise the siege of Orléans and then have the Dauphin crowned in Rheims. Slowly she persuades the men in power to come round to her ideas and becomes a great success. However, in trying to reclaim Paris, she takes one step too far and is captured, then put on trial before an ecclesiastical court. Found guilty of heresy, she is burnt at the stake.

Setting it in modern times is Shaw's design; as long as its themes remain relevant, this allows for any future production to be made accessible to its audience. The idea of this enduring relevance lies in a quote from the play displayed on the screen before curtain up: "Must a Christ perish in every age to save those that have no imagination?"

Director Josie Rourke has recognised that the power now lies within boardrooms, so sets the lords' courts there, showing the supply and demand for important commodities (eggs and milk) in a modern stock exchange style. It is all extremely slick and resonates perfectly with our current love of rolling news and life in a bad economic climate.

Joan's zeal for a France for the French and Cauchon and Warwick's description of her as a "nationalist" sits a little uneasily, given the volatile environment created by the EU referendum. However, remembering that France was occupied by English troops at that time puts a different spin on things.

Robert Jones's design is simple but effective, encapsulating the contemporary feel without overdoing it. Howard Harrison's lighting design is stunning, in particular highlighting Joan at the closing moment, fading until all that remains is candlelight.

The talented company includes Donmar regulars such as Matt Bardock as the initially cynical Baudricourt and Hadley Fraser as Dunois, one of Joan's closest allies, whose first contribution to the play is an attempt to compose a song to make the west wind change direction. Fisayo Akinade is hilarious as the cowardly, yet entitled, Dauphin, and Arthur Hughes gives a moving performance as Ladvenu, in his wishes to show Joan mercy at her trial.

As the eponymous saint, Gemma Arterton embodies Shaw's description of Joan in her resolve and confidence, showing adventure and imagination. Arterton's presence truly lights up the stage, in the same way that Joan's is imagined to have affected those in the same room as her.

Whilst it does feel a bit wordy at times, it is a fascinating play in that there's no obvious villain of the piece; instead the audience has to think why inherently good people may be drawn into doing bad things. With a strong feminist message at its core, Saint Joan will remain relevant for a while to come - and Rourke's production is a perfect representation for our time.

Saint Joan is at the Donmar Warehouse until 18 February, 2017

Picture credit: Jack Sain

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From This Author Debbie Gilpin