Saint Joan starring Gemma Arterton – review at the Donmar Warehouse, London
Gemma Arterton is the only woman on stage amid a sea of men. As the Maid of Orleans – the illiterate young village girl who, guided by voices, became a soldier, a leader of men, and the only saint to be put to death by the Catholic Church itself – she is also the only character wearing 15th century costume, the rest of the cast wear sharp suits or contemporary ecclesiastical dress.
In this way, and others, Josie Rourke’s production, played on and around a slowly rotating table, insists on the timeliness of Bernard Shaw’s dense text. On the back wall of the theatre designer Robert Jones has placed a triptych of video screens providing rolling news commentary about the price of eggs and the prevalence of winds from the west. There is a lot of talk of nationalism, “England for the English,” and how to fix a woman who chooses to cut off her hair and clothe herself as a soldier.
Arterton is gently radiant and unwavering as Joan, convincingly “in love with religion,” and driven by belief. But, though she’s always watchable, she doesn’t quite burn hot enough (whereas you could see how Anne-Marie Duff, playing the role in 2007 could have commanded an army), There’s decent support from Elliot Levey and Arthur Hughes as two of the many conflicted men of the church who send Joan to burn, and the final trial scene is gripping as a result, but Rourke’s production feels at time like it’s hitting its audience over the head with a rolled up newspaper.