Condola Rashad in ‘Saint Joan.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
It took a quarter of a century for Joan of Arc, burned at the stake as a heretic and witch in 1431, to be exonerated by the Church. In 1920, nearly 500 years later, she was canonized. Not long afterward, in 1923, when Saint Joan, Bernard Shaw’s “Chronicle Play in Six Scenes and an Epilogue,” opened on Broadway (a year before its London debut), a surprising number of critics were ready to put it to the flames: Percy Hammond, for one, called it another example of “Mr. Shaw’s gift for interminable rag-chewing.”
Saint Joan may have been beaten out as one of the year’s 10 best by such trifles as The Goose Hangs High and Chicken Feed but, ironically, it was a major factor in Shaw himself being, so to speak, canonized when, only two years later, he won the Nobel Prize. Now a modern classic with multiple Broadway revivals beneath its tunic, Saint Joan is available at the Friedman Theatre in a rather stodgy, lackluster version directed by Daniel Sullivan, with Condola Rashad (A Doll’s House, Part 2) giving a dutiful but uninspired performance as the Maid of Orleans.
Shaw, following the historical record, reveals Joan, a bluff, illiterate peasant of 17, in 1429, believing that the saints’ voices she hears are telling her to lead France’s demoralized army in ridding the nation of the English, who’ve occupied it for 90 years. So strong is the conviction of this proud, Shavian superwoman that she overcomes the skepticism of the floundering military leaders and the Archbishop of Rheims (John Glover).
Joan, seeking to establish France’s autonomy, propels a successful campaign supported by Dunois (Daniel Sunjata), commander of the forces at Orléans. Her efforts also instigate the crowning of the timid, childlike, Dauphin (Adam Chanler-Berat), as King Charles VII at Rheims, making him France’s first monarch in a decade.
Captured by the Burgundians, and sold to the Earl of Warwick (Jack Davenport) and Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais (Walter Bobbie), Joan is tried at Rouen. Deserted by those who backed her, she meets her death at the stake. In a dream-like epilogue set 25 years later, in 1456, the main players in her life reappear and a papal messenger announces her sainthood. However, after first adoring her, all (except a humble soldier [Robert Stanton]), beg Joan not to return to life. Saint or no, they realized she’d only be condemned again.
St. Joan contrasts Joan’s selflessness with the duplicity of her collaborators, who use her for their own purposes. In the most memorable scene, she nearly meets her match for fanatical devotion in the Inquisitor, whose initially sympathetic questioning, brilliantly embodied by the ever-masterful Patrick Page (who also covers Robert de Baudricourt), almost makes you like him.
Irony courses through the play’s many discussions, suggesting that Joan and her visions are of little worth in the vast struggle for secular power raging between the church, represented by Cauchon, and Europe, represented by Warwick. These conservatives must oppose Joan to preserve their authority.
Shaw was emphasizing his belief that Joan was executed for fomenting nationalism and, in the independence of her religious experience, signaling the rise of Protestantism. These ideas produce fine, but—this is Shaw, after all—verbose arguments whose dramatic possibilities only now and then flare into fiery life in this leaden production.
Scott Pask’s commanding but monotonous set is dominated by multiple, brass-colored, vertical cylinders arranged in an arch and suggesting a gigantic organ. Neither the gifted Justin Townsend’s lighting nor the medieval costumes of the estimable Jane Greenwood help much to diminish the visual boredom.
The supporting company—in particular Page, Bobbie, Chanler-Berat, and Glover—is intelligent and vigorous but too many moments sound rhetorically hollow, some actors shouting when all else fails. The large hole at the production’s core, however, is three-time Tony nominee Condola Rashad. She has energy and a strapping presence (although Dunois calls her his “little saint”), and manages some pathos during the trial scene, but her characterization is superficial. She lacks even a spark of the spiritual fire that would persuade anyone to put a nation’s fate into her hands.
When, after nearly three hours (which would have been three and a half without cuts) Joan speaks her famous tagline, “How long, O Lord, how long,” it’s hard not to respond, “Too long.”
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through June 10
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side.