Photo above: Sara Topham as Joan and Gray Powell as Dunois in Saint Joan. Photo by David Cooper
Slider Photo: The cast of Saint Joan. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Joan of Arc came from a small village and rose to prominence when she was just a young teenager. Nicknamed “The Maid”, Joan became a heroine of the Hundred Year’s War in France when her visions caused the French to resurge and take back key territories. The unexplained victories from such a young girl eventually lead to her demise as the church accused her of witchcraft and heresy.
In 1430 she was captured by the Burgundian’s and tried as a heretic. Nearly one year later she was mercilessly burned at the stake where her bravery only solidified her as a martyr.
In the 1920’s Joan was canonized by Pope Benedict VX. Most canonized individuals must perform four miracles before they receive Saint Hood, however, Joan’s act of saving France allowed her to need only three.
Saint Joan, a play based on this story, is one of Bernard Shaw’s best plays and has been performed on the Shaw Festival stage at least four times since their inception in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is my third iteration of it and despite being skeptical, found it stands up to my previous favourite from the 1993 with Mary Haney in the lead. That version was so compelling I saw it three times and it evoked such a powerful emotion in me it is still one of my very favourite plays of all time.
This Saint Joan is no disappointment, the set design and costume design from Judith Bowen only laid bare the passionate performances that deliver on many levels. The costumes are modern day dress and are plain and simple in style. One still gets that sense of who’s who, soldier, clergy and commoner without the usual adornment of lavish costuming. The stage is equally bereft of the Shaw’s typical set design, but is cleverly used with few props. It’s minimalism on all levels does not detract from the amazing story that has been set forth by Shaw.
The performance by newcomer Sara Topham as Joan is extremely good as she makes her debut at the Shaw Festival. Topham was a regular at Stratford and she gives Joan an air of the childlike innocence and purity of a woman so young. The supporting ensemble cast is strong with some familiar Shaw regulars such as Jim Mezon, as The Inquisitor and Gray Powell as Dunois.
Another welcome addition is the resounding chorus of “kyrie eleison” or Lord Have Mercy from the ensemble cast which provides an ethereal background enhancing the celestial nature of God and man, or rather man representing God and heretic.
I have only one complaint - This production of Saint Joan is performed without amplification, the actors are not wearing microphones. A rampant round of coughing from a number of individuals in the audience made some of the lines impossible to hear and was extremely annoying. I would opt for the $2.00 fee to get an enhanced listening device which is available upon calling to reserve.
Saint Joan is playing at the Shaw til October 15th, good tickets can be found at www.shawfest.com.
By Jenifer Cass