St Joan

Friedrich Schiller
The Faction
New Diorama Theatre

Kate Sawyer as Joan Credit: Holly Wren
Kate Sawyer as Joan and (below) Christopher Tester as Talbot and Francis Woolf as Fastolf Credit: Holly Wren

The Faction is embarked on an undertaking to translate, adapt, and stage the complete dramatic works of German dramatist Friedrich Schiller (1759 –1805) for a modern English-speaking audience.

It has already presented four of his plays and now adds Die Jungfrau von Orleans to its repertoire, adapted by Mark Leipacher, who co-directs with Rachel Valentine Smith.

For those familiar with the historical Joan or Bernard Shaw’s play, Schiller‘s version presents some narrative surprises. In his Mary Stuart (which the Faction staged in 2012) Schiller famously inserted a fictional meeting between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots and his Joan of Arc strays a long way from history.

Of course, she wasn’t a saint when he wrote it—canonisation came more than a hundred years later—but the Church named her a martyr only 25 years after she was burned at the stake for witchcraft. Schiller ignores that burning. He has her die on the battlefield.

There are no drums and trumpets, clashing swords or swirling banners in The Faction’s production. It is pared down to the minimum: no scenery, just a row of stepped rostra against the black walls of the theatre, black costumes, overalls or trousers and tunics, some with touches of deep maroon or dark blue in gilets, beanie hats and one long knitted coat, and Joan marked out as different in a long beige modern evening dress.

There are no props; everything is mimed except for a symbolic lump of mud or clay that is brought in to represent a mysterious helmet, which Joan then spreads over her braided hair. The sword that seems to make her always victorious is symbolised by her outstretched, mud-coated arm.

The Faction has, rightly, gained a reputation for physical inventiveness. Here, the performers intertwine to create the Druid tree where Joan kneels to find inspiration, flurries of movement add excitement to entrances or suggest battle, and a slow crawl beneath rostra generates tension. The emphasis is entirely upon the actors, often outlined by stark white lighting, and on the words.

This adaptation is rendered into fluent verse, which is excellently spoken. The fast-moving production runs without interval, and the text is prudently cut to permit this, but characters still tend to orate rather than converse, even when the words are delivered with clarity and feeling. Only when the personal takes precedence do you really care about any of them as people rather than figures from history.

Natasha Rickman brings a strong personality to her playing of the Dauphin who becomes Charles VII, but it is in the devotion of Joan’s village admirer Raimond (Francis Woolf) and when the courtiers Dunois (Christopher York) and La Hire (Adam Howden) wish to woo her that we see less formal feelings emerging.

This Joan is not Shaw’s peasant. Though she spends time with the sheep, her father is a landowner. In her formal gown, Kate Sawyer gives her a head girl, speech day confidence. Confidence in her Heaven-given authority makes her a bit of a prig. This makes it the more affecting that she crumbles after realising her attraction to English soldier Lionel (Tom Brownlee), whom she cannot kill despite dispatching so many others.

No sooner is Joan hailed as the nation’s salvation at Charles VII’s coronation than Schiller has her, in front of the whole court, accused of witchcraft—and by her father (Christopher Tester, who does an excellent double as English leader Talbot). Joan’s silence seems to condemn her, but these later scenes, culminating in capture, killing and a final apotheosis, allow some humanity to enter the performance.

Schiller’s play is not a conventional piece of hagiography. It underlines the question of whether that mud-marked magic was a gift from heaven or the Devil. There is an element of rebellion against male order, though that may not be intended, and it seems to be placing duty above personal feeling, something with which is probably harder to identify today than in the society for which he wrote it.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton