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St Joan review at National Olivier

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Marianne Elliott has cleverly acknowledged that this play is as much about anti-establishment Shaw himself, as a medieval heroine from Lorraine. She does this by weaving hints of the First World War into the Hundred Years War setting and having outsider Joan played with an Irish accent. Elliott clearly relishes Shaw’s naughty boy seriousness, his cheap jokes about Englishness, while he is exploring pivotal ideas for which Joan may have been an unwitting standard-bearer – Nationalism, Protestantism, individualism – but which had much greater relevance in later centuries.

Set in 1429 and written in 1923, this St Joan has a 21st-century staging, which bears the hallmarks of Elliott’s customary fearless innovation. The cast remains in view throughout. A rectangular raked revolve on the wide Olivier stage provides a suitable home for both a rhythmic, dark-lit, thrillingly choreographed battle and the rhetorical exchanges between Warwick, the noble (Angus Wright), the Bishop of Beauvais (Paterson Joseph) and the proto-nationalist de Stogumber (Michael Thomas), all of whom fear the power of what this country girl represents. As Joan, Anne-Marie Duff, slight and girlish, is perfectly cast, combining luminous saintly fervour with annoying bossiness and a childish innocence.

Samuel Adamson’s curtailed epilogue and Elliott’s return to the production’s first image – a battle field breakfast – subtly emphasise the extraordinary timeliness of this play, in which politics and religion are inextricably bound up. Jocelyn Pook’s music, both soaring and militaristic, exactly underpins the mood.

Criticised last year for failing to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of GBS, the National Theatre has made spectacular amends.

Production Information

National (Olivier), Author: Bernard Shaw

Director
Marianne Elliott
Cast includes Anne-Marie Duff, James Hayes, Paterson Joseph, Angus Wright, Oliver Ford Davies
Running time
3hrs

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