Theatergoers hankering for plays that deal extravagantly in issues and language know they’ll find it in anything and everything written by the tireless George Bernard Shaw — or Bernard Shaw, as Manhattan Theatre Club prefers it in the credits for its classy Broadway revival of Saint Joan. The voluble Shaw had so much that he wanted to say that he often extended his stage directions to the length of essays.
He has often either been lionized for the smart talk found in his plays or else criticized for making them talky. So it may be worthy advice to alert ticket buyers where Saint Joan is located or the Shavian spectrum. You like his characters exchanging pithy observations? You’re guaranteed a hearty time under director Dan Sullivan’s rule.
I also wonder whether this drama (or is it a tragicomedy?) has ever been accorded a more elegant presentation. What’s going on in the play is that the embattled French population is suffering under the long English invasion. In the village of Domrémy, Joan (Condola Rashad), who’s been hearing encouraging voices, is reluctantly given charge of the military and succeeds at Rheims in obtaining the crown for the long-uncrowned Dauphin (Adam Chandler-Berat).
From her triumph to the ensuing trial that Joan endures for alleged heresy, and from her subsequent recantation to her recantation of her recantation, everything takes place on a set that Scott Pask has designed to resemble a monumental church organ. It’s a visual statement in harmony with Sullivan vision of one of Shaw’s themes: the hegemony of religion. What’s stressed throughout the play is how the church handles its citizenry, juxtaposed against the military’s inflexible sway. The pipes are sometimes moved sideways to accommodate larger (but never very large) crowds, but they’re always there, reminding us of the church’s omnipresence at its most dignifying.
Almost at the center of the script, Cauchon (Walter Bobbie), the Bishop of Beauvais, faces off against the Earl of Warwick (Jack Davenport), who speaks for the military. Shaw’s stage direction is:
Cauchon accepts the place of honor with a grave inclination. Warwick fetches the leather stool carelessly and sits in his former place. The chaplain goes back to his chair. Though Warwick has taken second place in calculated deference to the Bishop, he assumes the lead in opening the proceedings as a matter of course.
The canny playwright sees to it that pride and equality of place are depicted in a scene in which two characters, seated, gesticulating or not, enter into what can only be termed a debate. And what a debate it is! The outspoken Fabian Society socialist holds up both the church and the military to harsh examination.
Among other Fabian Society concerns, of course, was the rights of women, something that Shaw consistently espoused. He more regularly gave women the upper hand is his plays — Major Barbara, Mrs. Warren, Candida, Eliza Doolittle, Ellie Dunn. Among his leading ladies, however, there is no one more indelible than the martyr Joan, still a household name 600 years on.
Shaw’s Joan is 17 — she thinks she may be 19 — with a heap of gumption as played by Rashad. She comes on like gangbusters when, in the first scene, she crashes the quarters of Robert de Baudricourt (Patrick Page) to insist that she be outfitted and supplied with a horse and companions as she begins her God-ordained campaign.
Her spunk eventually transforms into steely resolve, not to say grit, as Joan repeatedly encounters military men and clergymen who attempt to convince her that her voices are inspired by the Devil.
It’s Shaw’s strength that, more than in any of his other works, Joan exists a woman in an entirely male world. It’s literally Joan against the male population. Only one other woman appears on stage, and briefly: the Duchess de la Trémouille (Mandi Masden), a courtier resplendently draped in a Jane Greenwood costume design.
While Rashad ebulliently fills the title role, there are stretches when Joan disappears and the men are handed stern, sometimes surprisingly humorous, lines. Shaw was never one to banish humor completely, of course. When that happens, Bobbie, Davenport and Page — and John Glover, Robert Stanton, Daniel Sunjata, Matthew Saldivar and Russell G. Jones — take over with masculine fortitude.
There’s something amusing and bemusing to say about this Saint Joan that’s both beside and not beside the point. It has to do with the audience reaction to it. Jeanne d’Arc waged her holy war, as she understood it, in 1429. Saint Joan spectators are meant to side with The Maid and her invigorated warriors, many of whom believe they’re witnessing miracles.
Then there’s William Shakespeare’s Henry V and the battle of Agincourt. That engagement between the English and the French took place in 1415. Watching it, the audience is asked to pull for the matured Prince Hal. In other words, audiences can find themselves reacting like the mob in Julius Caesar as it first cheers Brutus and then celebrates Mark Antony. It’s an instance of play-going fun.
Here, Joan is burnt at the stake, though the scene is not included here. (It’s up to lighting designer Justin Townsend to gild Pask’s golden chimes with glowing red.) But Shaw sees to it that her off-stage death isn’t the end of her. She returns to the bedroom of King Charles VII 25 years later with some of her former friends and foes for one of literary theater’s most satisfying, even endearing, closing sequences. (Jean Anouilh did something similar in The Lark.)
As that epilogue ends, Joan speaks a lilting line that — possibly more than anything else in the play — is eerily relevant to the hope needed in our gnarled world today.