Saturday, June 9, 2018

Theater Review: Bernard Shaw’s ‘Saint Joan,’ Presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club

Saint Joan, which closes on Broadway on Sunday, arrived when the nearly century-old tragicomedy by George Bernard Shaw could be seen in a new light. This has less to do with the production capably but not sensationally mounted by the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC), and more with the gender warfare of the moment.

You want a leader constantly having to face down men who underestimate or even condescend to her? Well, here is one who truly, to borrow the favorite verb of Mitch McConnell, “persisted”—whether by leading an army to victory on the battlefield or by being burned at the stake.

Despite themselves, even battle-hardened, cynical French soldiers realize that there is, as a few put it in the first act, “something about her.”

In one of the six scenes of this nearly three-hour play, Shaw has two adversaries--a French Cardinal and an English earl with precious little interest in religion--move toward an unexpected alliance through their mutual interest in stopping an even more unlikely common enemy, a French teenage farm girl, Joan of Lorraine. The adolescent—better known to posterity as St. Joan of Arc—threatens them as the representative of two new forces in history, what the Anglo-Irish playwright, in a case of puckish anachronism, terms “nationalism” and “Protestantism.”

The Archbishop of Rheims observes, not without anxiety, that “there is a new spirit rising in man; we are at the dawning of a wider epoch.” Joan, as the unwitting emblem of that "new spirit," is a threat to the medieval power structure.

But, while Shaw’s initial listeners might have nodded in agreement at that scene, as well as Shaw's observations on the cluelessness of career male military leaders (who had, only a few years before, sent countless young men to their death in WWI) and on intolerance. 

But the prime movers at the MTC are far more interested in a different struggle taking place after intermission. This struggle involves Joan, a woman of strength and determination who had lifted the siege of Orleans, now finding her strategy of carrying the flight to the English questioned anew by the men who had scoffed at her initial plan to raise the siege of Orleans in the Hundred Years' War.

As Joan, Condola Rashad has the only major female role in Shaw’s play. (Mandi Masden, playing the Duchess de la Tremouille, is on and off quickly.) She must interact with 17 different male actors and, as Joan, contend with each of them. Her Tony Award nomination is well-deserved, as she conveys the simplicity and purity that are at once the source of her strength in leading men to victory and of her endangerment in an ecclesiastical court shadowed by power politics.

Though Tony voters have singled out Rashad, a couple of other cast members also deserved consideration: Jack Davenport, as the cynical power player Earl of Warwick, and Patrick Page, making the most of two roles: the strutting military peacock Capt. Robert de Baudricourt and The Inquisitor, an ecclesiastical judge as intent that Joan receive a fair trial as he is fanatical in insisting that the charges against her are in and of themselves worthy of invoking the death penalty. 

I had forgotten just how long this play can be, no doubt because the only prior version I saw—a 1967 Hallmark Hall of Fame special, with Geneviève Bujold in the title role—clocked in at a TV-friendly two hours. Brooking no criticism for straining playgoers’ and critics’ preferences for shorter fare than the 3 1/2 hours he projected, Shaw airily noted in his preface to the play that “'what matters is not the absolute length of time occupied by a play, but the speed with which that time passes.”

Director Daniel Sullivan has steered a middle course between the playwright’s demands and the audience’s desire for different play lengths, bringing in the production at two hours and 45 minutes. He’s also added touches that bolster his interpretation without being inimical to the playwright’s intention (e.g., Page as Baudricourt confronts Joan bare-chested in an empty attempt to overwhelm her with machismo).  

But Shaw does Sullivan no favors with his dialogue-heavy text. Walter Bobbie (who plays the Bishop of Beauvais, Cauchon) noted, in a thoughtful post-show “talk back,” that Shaw was a “narrative essayist” who planted surprising theatrical touches in what were essentially dramas of ideas.

But much of the early going—particularly the scenes between Cauchon and Warwick, and between Joan and the soldier Dunois—consisted of static standoffs. It was only in the second half of the play, when Joan realizes she won’t have the support of the men she championed and, after her capture, goes on trial for heresy, that the full dramatic potential of the play as mounted by the MTC is achieved.

No comments: