Behold the golden pipes. You look at the most mystifying design props in this Broadway season and can only wonder why these floor-to-ceiling tubes are the principal aesthetic focus in Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
Perhaps they are supposed to bring to mind the organ pipes you would find in a church.
Perhaps they are the symbolic routes from heaven to earth transporting the voice of God that Joan of Arc (Condola Rashad) claimed to hear.
Perhaps they are supposed to symbolize something regal; after all, part of the action occurs in the 1420s court of the dauphin, Charles VII (Adam Chanler-Berat).
Perhaps they just look pretty: Toward the end they become wind chimes, which is tinkly and fun.
Whatever, if you’re focusing this much on a theater production’s use of large golden tubes, all is not right.
In this under-charged production of Shaw’s 1923 play, first performed three years after Joan of Arc’s canonization by the Roman Catholic Church, Rashad plays the iconic martyr as a lost-seeming, somewhat dreamy young woman. As directed by Daniel Sullivan, she is resolute, but gently so. She stays strong for sure, she leads an army, but our impression is of someone who is happier staring devotedly skyward.
At no point, despite the chainmail she sports, do you feel this Joan is leading the French army to a battlefield; an extended meditation session maybe, but not war. It is not a bad performance, but it feels misjudged in its tone. Rashad, as her Tony-nominated starring roles in The Trip to Bountiful and A Doll’s House, Part 2 show, is an accomplished actress. Here she plays a fine but too-subdued Joan.
Throughout, Joan faces suspicion leavened by sexism, beginning with Patrick Page’s bare-chested squire Robert de Baudricort, whom she demands a horse from to go see the dauphin, so she can take, she informs him, the English on at Orléans, crown the dauphin in Rheims Cathedral, and make the English leave France.
She is fighting with the “will of God” in mind and at her side, and only that.
He calls her “impudent baggage” but is won over when his chickens suddenly lay eggs after being in her presence. Is she for real or a fraud? The eternal question of Joan of Arc, Shaw makes clear, was the same question that she faced during her life.
She wins the dauphin over by recognizing him as the true heir to the French throne, and Chanler-Berat is whinily charming as the reluctant fighter, the nervous head of state. He is surrounded by flunkies and schemers. Whoever Joan is, for him she is a godsend and a friend. They are both outsiders.
“I am quiet and sensible, and I don’t want to kill people,” he says disconsolately. “I only want to be left alone to enjoy myself in my own way. I never asked to be a king. It was pushed on me.” Joan also finds support in the kind and sensible Dunois (Daniel Sunjata), a French commander whose support and wisdom is a constant.
In contrast, a swaggering and sneering Jack Davenport as the British Earl of Warwick—bringing a ghost of his character Miles at his most asshole-ish in the excellent late ’90s serial This Life—and his vicious clerical sidekick, the Chaplain de Stogumber (Robert Stanton), want Joan dead.
To the Brits, Joan is a witch whose sorcery is winning battles. For their uneasy ally, Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais (Walter Bobbie), Joan is a heretic who should be tried in his court as such. The British want to burn her, the Catholic Church want to “save” her. Her power, and the power she claims for herself, terrifies both the English and French for different reasons.
Unlike the 2007 Saint Joan, performed at the National Theatre in London, this production does not attempt to mount the battle scene set in Rheims. And Saint Joan needs the heat of battle, or at least the heady suggestion of it, just as it needs a more impassioned heroine.
The character needs vinegar as well as Joan’s innate moral and spiritual clarity that God is indeed speaking to her. Her incredulity that no one believes her is captured well by Rashad as both ethereal and incredibly, annoyingly smug and myopic. Even her buddy the dauphin gets tetchy about it: “Oh, your voices, your voices. Why don’t the voices come to me? I am king, not you.”
Joan replies: “They do come to you, but you do not hear them...”
Her faith is so strong it should feel more earthy, more fundamental, than it does here. There is also nuance to be found as Joan grapples herself with the immensity of what she feels she has been handed. Rashad’s interpretation endows Joan with airy goodness, whereas what she knows she embodies should be much more intimidating, even perhaps to her.
“I see now that the loneliness of God is His strength,” she says. “Well, my loneliness shall be my strength too; it is better to be alone with God; His friendship will not fail me, nor His counsel, nor His love. In His strength I will dare, and dare, and dare, until I die.”
It’s hard, however, to see this Joan arousing much passion or devotion on the part of an army. The irritation people feel toward her, the suspicion, feels more natural—and certainly earns some hearty audience laughter. Davenport perfectly judges the impatient and lackluster fiendishness of his character.
We do not see enough of Joan leading, inspiring, and galvanizing; we see her speaking soberly and suffering nobly. The battle scene imagined at the National—ramparts, bodies flying—goes unrendered here even as an attempt. Instead, a map is brought toward the audience with the flames of battle superimposed upon it. It is pretty, but it does not scream high stakes.
Toward the end, in the key bishop’s courtroom scene, Rashad-as-Joan properly lets fly against her accusers. They can torture her, she says, and she may recant something in the moment to ward off further pain, but she will then recant that later on.
In this moment, as Joan faces those who want her to repent or burn, the production awakens from its theoretical, liturgical slumber. In the best part of her speech, when her accusers betray her, Joan accuses them of taking counsel from the Devil. She is furious and angry, and we finally feel and see her passion.
But just as the battle scene goes unaddressed, the play also bizarrely chooses to ignore Joan’s burning to death. The injustice and terror of that occurs offstage. We see some concentrated orange light, et c’est ça.
The play then comes alive again—and the performers become immediately more engaged and engaging—in the epilogue Shaw imagined occurring 25 years later in Charles’ bedroom, where he alive and roused from sleep is suddenly surrounded by the ghosts of the principals, and a visitor from 1920 bringing news of Joan’s sainthood.
It is a delightfully written, wittily irreverent scene, and beautifully acted here with mumbled apologies and lots of “oh dear, well that’s then.” Death certainly makes Joan less pious and more layered. But as in life, so it is in the play: It’s all too late.
Saint Joan is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, until June 10. Book here.