Charisma and catharsis
In 1871 when France lost the Franco-Prussian war, the country needed a patriotic boost to get citizens feeling good again. The state reached back into the fifteenth century for a heroine and erected statues to Joan of Arc who drove the English off the throne of France. I’ve seen some of those statues in small French towns as well as in New Orleans where her birthday is celebrated at the start of Mardi Gras.
Back in the day, the church and the establishment were both against her. Just as the country came around, so did the church, by canonizing her in 1920. George Bernard Shaw wrote Saint Joan in 1923 and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925. All this to say that the current production at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake comes freighted with history.
The play succeeds … and then some. The sets are simple and geometric in design. The costumes are equally straightforward; no breastplate for Sara Topham who not only captures the vibrancy of the teenaged Joan but also the gravitas necessary for others to follow her into battle. After all, the young Joan did hear voices. Some thought she was deluded; others were convinced she was a witch. Female leadership remains equally problematic today.
We were in New York recently and saw Come From Away as well as Present Laughter with Kevin Kline who won a Tony for leading actor. Both plays were excellent but Saint Joan is better. In fact, it is the best play I have seen in a long time. At the end of the epilogue, I had tears in my eyes and literally felt the whoosh of catharsis through my body just like is supposed to happen in Greek tragedy. I was, and remain, thunderstruck.