As you enter the Donmar auditorium, Gemma Arterton as Joan of Arc is kneeling in the centre of the stage, praying to the God she is certain is on her side. Clad in armour and with a sword by her side, it’s the image of Joan that we are all familiar with.
George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 play looks back to the medieval past but is obviously suited to the present: both his own early twentieth century present and our own current day. With the production being presented in modern dress, it’s easy to assume that it was written in our own time, especially as since Brexit the idea of being at war with France doesn’t seem quite as unlikely as perhaps it once did.
Into this modern setting of boardrooms and politics, entirely male, steps Joan, convinced that the voices of the saints have told her to make war upon the English and drive them from France. Those in power hardly know what to make of her; she seems to come from another world, particularly as she wears more medieval-style clothes than the rest of them. Something about her wholehearted conviction wins them over, and they send her troops; she wins several battles, but it isn’t too long before she is captured, and we all know what happens next.
I really like Gemma Arterton as an actress, and she didn’t disappoint here. She is entirely convincing as the passionate Joan, and the whole production seems to light up when she is on stage. The rest of the cast also do a great job, particularly Fisayo Akinade as the Dauphin and Jo Stone-Fewings as Warwick, but while I like Shaw he does have a tendency to go on a bit, and some of the scenes without Joan did drag.
Robert Jones’s set design is effective, with screens of financial news and BBC news reports changing, particularly when Joan is speaking, to medieval religious painting, as if emphasising both Joan’s own time and place and her essential timelessness, famous even today when her contemporaries are forgotten. The final scene reinforces this, with its church-like interior, scent of incense and Joan smiling into the dark. This is the image that will stay with me for a while.