Anouilh’s strikingly modern take on Joan of Arc is performed in the strikingly antique Boys School space in Smock Alley.
The audience sit on benches in front of a stage, bare except for chairs and a chest, while the Lord Bishop Cauchon (Gerard Adlum) and the Earl of Warwick (Dave Fleming) discuss how they will conduct the trial, as if the audience were attending it in 1431, and inform us that they can’t enter the battles in evidence as they don’t have enough men to stage them… Eoghan Carrick’s spotlights aid fluid switches between the trial and flashbacks, while the monastic garb (with extra medieval caps and steeple hats for actors playing multiple roles) epitomises director Sarah Finlay’s high seriousness. This is a stripped-down production which demands absolute concentration from the audience on fierce theological arguments debated in front of a centuries old Romanesque wall.
Warwick, a sardonic Machiavellian, wants Joan condemned in order to discredit her crowning of the Dauphin as King of France. Cauchon, however, insists the Maid is not for burning. Joan is allowed perform her family’s disbelief of her visions and her encounters with her local squire and the Dauphin. The father-daughter scenes convince not only because of the striking height difference between the two actors but also Shane Connolly’s nuanced portrayal of an exasperated but loving father, beating his daughter to try and protect her from herself. Sadly the other flashbacks drag. Ian Toner is nicely leering as de Beacourt, eager to exercise his droit de seigneur, and also amuses as the mistress of the Dauphin, but both scenes outstay their welcome. Ruairi Heading’s turn as the Dauphin similarly suffers in comparison to his more tightly written role of the compassionate Brother Ladvenu. Indeed the second act crackles with energy purely because Anouilh eschews flashbacks.
Joan (Caitriona Ennis) is frequently the still centre of a hurricane of ideas. Toner’s hysterical Promoter sees a seductive Devil everywhere. Joan’s suggestion that God could damn a soul, free will be damned is pounced on by him as a terrible heresy but then forgotten, even though it’s arguably proto-Calvinism. More rigorous is Jennifer Laverty’s terrifying Inquisitor, who attacks Joan for elevating Man in importance against and over God. Though ultimately suspiciously Manichean for a defender of Orthodoxy, in insisting that man is evil because he is worldly, the Inquisitor intimidates the other clerics, and if it’s not specified by the script is brilliant casting by Finlay as Laverty stands in ultimate judgement over another woman. Laverty also scoops a great line rebuking someone for confusing “charity, the theological virtue, and the murky liquid known as the milk of human kindness”. Fleming is wonderfully droll as Warwick, but Adlum has the most interesting role and he is riveting every time Cauchon clashes intellectually with Joan.
Cauchon is desperate to save Joan’s soul, and distances himself from Warwick’s politicking. Ennis plays saintly simplicity very well, the ‘sign’ she gives of recognising the disguised Dauphin is done with the playfulness of a child, while her connection to God when rebuking her favourite soldier for swearing is as utterly self-conscious as her performance of God’s voice for the benefit of her interrogators. Ennis also displays some nice signs of self-doubt under the subtle questioning of Cauchon on what Joan would do if one of her soldiers started to hear voices countermanding her orders… The steel and righteous savagery of Joan the soldier though only appears once when, in a speech uncannily similar to the contemporaneous The Crucible, she renounces her abjuration in order to be true to herself.
Fleming’s English accent is close cousin to a certain contemporary politician, suggesting chummy but callous people always triumph. But self-immolating in protest about that won’t change society, and Anouilh refuses to endorse either Joan’s martyrdom or Cauchon’s mercy. Anouilh’s Joan literally prefers burning out to fading away, but a script so focused on complicated ideas surely implicitly endorses thinking over feeling. Joan temporarily changed the world by emotional force of will, but perhaps the question of Calvinism is left hanging to make us realise that if Joan felt the truth of Calvinism it took Calvin’s application of rigorous theology to make it a force. The lesson: only by understanding a conventional wisdom can one hope to permanently change it.
Fast Intent provides an absorbing production of a thought-provoking play.
The Lark continues its run at Smock Alley Theatre until the 11th of August.