Challenging, erudite and above all, captivating
Julia Pascal's St Joan, however, does just this. I had to see the performance a second time before writing this review. This work is not dumbed down to achieve a high star rating from a disinterested critic and its subject matter confirms this. St Joan is concerned with many things. Primarily, it asks us to question the truly abstract notion of nationalism, though it considers nationalism from a variety of perspectives. It focuses on the displacement of Jews from Joan of Arc's time up to the collapse of colonialism and on to modern Britain. Secondly, St Joan is about the woman herself--it approaches her story from a distinctly feminist perspective.
If the play has one distinct argument, it’s an attack on the irony of politics and post-colonial attitudes in France. It travels through history in a far more inventive and less sci-fi manner than its somewhat unimpressive flyer would suggest. The work is highly historical, visiting Theresienstadt, Paris, London, Egypt, WW1, Verdun, Domrémy, Algeria, the Crusades, and the 100 Years’ War. After all this time travelling exploration, we discover Europe is a corrupt melting pot of cultures with no real reason for nationalistic thinking.
The three actors are outstanding. Julia Dante is a somewhat matriarchal figure, she towers above petite co-stars Rachel Halper and Géhane Strehler as she uses her deep voice to narrate the piece. Her excellent narration, however, is outshone by moments when she channels a sardonic tone of such ferocity that you feel yourself at fault. Halper plays the more traditional Joan. Her character importantly and poignantly highlights the gender themes of the play, especially in an existential speech giving the precise recounting of her burning. Strehler displays great versatility as an actor, moving from demonic to tender, from Arab, to Frenchwoman, to Londoner. She’s the actor asked the most by her director and she answers the call.
Director Katrin Hilbe keeps her cast moving beautifully across the stage. The props don’t simply aid the acting, they become part of the symbolism of the piece--the same prop is used for the cross and the sword, for example. Hilbe brilliant considers the folly of death in the name of king and country, often asking us what ‘country’ even is. Go and see this play – it is challenging, erudite and above all, captivating. The actors absolutely command the stage and the production is seamless. It’s a brilliant show.