“There are no villains in the piece,” George Bernard Shaw declared of his 1923 play Saint Joan. “It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.”
Daniel Sullivan, helming the work’s return to Broadway, appears to have taken Shaw’s edicts to heart. The Manhattan Theatre Club revival’s willingness to dwell in ambiguity and accept each side’s conviction that they’re doing what’s right makes it both uncomfortable and undeniably compelling.
The story of Joan of Arc – and many elements of Sullivan’s production – may be familiar, but Condola Rashad is a revelation in the title role. Her rise from precocious farmgirl to the right hand of the Dauphin is immensely satisfying to watch. She’s composed, competent, and determined to answer her God-given calling to save France, inflexible heads of church and state be damned.
Those uncooperative men, initially flattered by her fealty, can only conceive of her as being in love with the cause she serves: first religion (so the Archbishop informs her), then war (per the Bastard of Orleans). The latter in particular, while happy to take her as his ally once she’s proven her utility, is ill at ease with her unearthly intensity, innocence, and perhaps her androgyny. When she references life in her village, he latches onto a scrap of seeming femininity and uses it to reframe her, suggesting that she might be “a bit of a woman after all”; Rashad’s Joan visibly recoils, reasserting herself as a soldier instead.
That self-image is reflected in her armor and close-cropped hair, which become a point of contention once she’s captured and put to trial. Joan aside, however, Jane Greenwood’s other costumes seem miscalculated. While the outfits certainly highlight the Dauphin and his aristocrats’ absurdity – the soldiers’ muted tones stand in contrast to the gaudiness of the golden, tittering court – the effort tips too far into parody, an off-brand vision of medieval France that feels at odds with otherwise high production values.
Scott Pask’s evocative set-pieces serve the story better. The stage is dominated by great organ pipes that, with slight movements and changes in lighting, transform easily from throne room to battlefield to cathedral. And when the structures that have hemmed Joan in throughout fall away for the dreamlike finale, the starry sky they’d obscured is a sight to behold.
Obadiah Eaves’s sound design, too, is expressive without feeling intrusive. Monastic echoes mark the shadowy ecclesiastical court, and the church bells that call Joan to her ill-fated mission chime at just the right moments, tugging her away from the worldly concerns of her would-be allies.
Rashad doesn’t shy away from this oracular strangeness, the harsh edges of a single-minded conviction that has no need to make itself comprehensible to others. Crucially, though, her Joan also shows herself to be deeply human. She’s brisk, charming, and matter-of-fact at the outset, quick to put the men around her in their place, and full of pathos when the time comes. As she speaks of the love in the eyes of the common people – a comfort in the face of the unfeelingly self-interested elite – it’s easy to imagine the audience in that role; bursts of mid-scene applause and genuine gasps at her boldness were a testament to Rashad’s all-important charisma.
The production also makes more explicit appeals to the viewer’s judgement. “You are all, I hope, merciful men,” says the Inquisitor during Joan’s trial, spreading his arms toward us. It’s a line that could easily be played as slimy and superficial, but Patrick Page makes it convincingly earnest, complicating the dynamic between himself and Rashad’s Joan. Unfortunately, few other characters achieve such depths. The Dauphin (Adam Chanler-Berat) is at his best early on, when coaxed into confiding in Joan, but he soon retreats back into self-defensive or simply self-interested snark.
Sullivan’s is a relatively by-the-numbers production that doesn’t attempt to relocate the play or tease out its relationship to the current moment; until the final scene, we are firmly entrenched in 1429 A.D. But even absent a clear vision, Shaw’s words are largely capable of speaking for themselves (though the production somewhat belabors the scene in which two characters “invent” the terms Protestantism and nationalism), and Rashad and Page in particular are more than capable of breathing new life into them.
The surreal epilogue is set 25 years on from the play’s events; the same amount of time has passed since Saint Joan last appeared on Broadway. Throughout the crowded, jocular scene of reunion and reconciliation, with all the key players piled onto the Dauphin’s bed, the humor is charged with the knowledge that Joan is only deemed admirable in death. “Can they unburn me?” she asks, to which the man who owes her his crown replies wryly, “If they could, they would think twice before they did it.” With Rashad in the role, I, for one, welcome the resurrection.