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George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan does justice to riveting historical heroine

The cast of Saint Joan called to arms. Photo:David Cooper

George Bernard Shaw’s masterful words are well served by Kim Collier’s Saint Joan at the Arts Club running till November 23 at the Stanley Theatre.

Joan of Arc, a teenaged, illiterate, peasant girl, led the French armies during the Hundred Years War. She acted upon voices from God, so she said. Tried by the English, who declared her a heretic, she was burned at the stake May 30, 1431.

The voices have been explained a few ways: a victim of Holy Anorexia, a disorder not uncommon in woman during that time period and not unlike anorexia today only based around a devotion to God-Joan ate only bread and water much of the time and so hallucinated, a not unusual symptom: she might have been mentally ill; or she might have actually heard the voice of God and his angels.

Shaw doesn’t so much as explain the why but opens up the possibilities to allow the audience to decide for themselves.

Not long after the canonization of Joan of Arc by the Roman Catholic Church, Shaw published Saint Joan in 1924, based on the substantial records of the trial. A long time member of the Fabian Society, a society that laid the foundation of the Labour party in England, his socialism shines through.

An all male cast except for Joan (Meg Roe), Shaw’s ideology points to the use and abuse of power.

Collier has provided a clear structure that honours the play while providing risky and unusual elements that make the experience visceral.

Divided clearly into three acts, separated by intermissions, the scene changes use gorgeous music composed by Allesandro Juliani, sung beautifully by two women (Shannon Chan-Kent and Christine Quintana) who are placed in balconies hovering over the stage like angels.

Collier, known for using the theatre as a playground that breaks the fourth wall, does not disappoint here.

Act I ends with soldiers throwing up ladders, climbing to the balcony and then balancing on a tiny platform while yelling their call to battle. All this happens in what seems like seconds. Metaphors abound.

Without Meg Roe’s Joan, the play would not fly. Clear intention, honest and deeply felt emotion, well developed physical characteristics, her Joan, in the second and third act especially, give us insight into this very human, young woman with more courage than the armies that she led.

Other stand-outs in the cast were Dean Paul Gibson’s Earl of Warwick who created the world around him with ease. In Act II, a scene between the Earl of Warwick,  Bishop Cauchon (Scott Bellis), and Chaplain de Stogumber (Gerard Plunket), is grounded by his presence and calculated charm. Bellis also does a fine job with very dense text.

Haig Sutherland’s Dauphin is also excellent as the potential king who is not in the least bit interested in war.

The team of Pam Johnson’s set design and John Webber’s lights works as well as Collier’s surprise moments. Building large crosses with a set structure and cyclorama lighting, having a table lift from the floor complete with draping tablecloth, using platforms that have coloured lights in place creating dynamics from a simple set, all add to the spectacle of the play. 

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