Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Theatre review: Joan of Arc

If Friedrich Schiller is Germany's answer to Shakespeare, then Joan of Arc must be his Henry V. It even features its own Welshman, and takes place soon after the end of Shakespeare's play, as the French start to take back the land and power lost to the English. It takes an unusual general to reverse their fortunes, though: With the Dauphin (Natasha Rickman) out of cash, and at odds with his half-brother Dunois (Christopher York) about how to take on the enemy, they're open to desperate measures, like the arrival of young country girl Joan (Kate Sawyer,) who claims to be a messenger of divine support for the French cause. Allowed to test her claim, Joan proves a canny military tactician, bringing the traitorous Duke of Burgundy (Christopher Hughes) back to the fold, and defeating the feared English general Talbot (Christopher Tester.)

But from this point on Joan's journey follows neither history nor any popular version of her story. Having turned down Dunois' advances because she's dedicated to a religious life, she finds herself instantly falling for Lionel (Tom Brownlee,) the last remaining enemy general.

If Schiller's version of the story is unconventional, so too is Joan in Mark Leipacher and Rachel Valentine Smith's production. The French nobles may be surprised at her gender, but there's nothing unlikely about Sawyer as a military leader, her Joan not resembling a tomboyish teenager so much as Liberty in the Delacroix painting (but without her norks hanging out.)

Sawyer may have the title role but at times this feels as much Natasha Rickman's show, playing not only the Dauphin but also his mother, Queen Isabel, who's unrepentantly leading the English side against her own sons. But Leipacher and Valentine Smith have also kept The Faction's signature ensemble work most strongly in the final show of this season, with the whole cast contributing physical work to create the landscape. The design theme that sees Joan create her armour and weapons out of clay - just as she herself is a warrior incongruously born out of the farmland - also feels like a return to the visual inventiveness I expect from the company.

Although there's something of a natural break in the play between the gung-ho war scenes and the second half's exploration of Joan as mythical figure, the production plays straight through without an interval. It's a welcome change, after the inexplicable "leave 'em wanting less" approach to Romeo and Juliet and The Talented Mr Ripley, to have this sense of urgency return to The Faction's work, making this the most successful of this year's trio.

Joan of Arc by Friedrich Schiller in a version by Mark Leipacher is booking in repertory until the 28th of February at the New Diorama Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

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