George Bernard Shaw’s plays are performed so rarely on major New York stages that it’s hard not to feel grateful for a chance to see a first-class production of “Saint Joan.” Unfortunately, a dutiful gratefulness is about all the enthusiasm it’s possible to muster for the handsome and well-acted but stolid production from Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
In bringing his acidic humor to bear on a series of celebrated historical events, Shaw was straying from his most comfortable turf: subversive contemporary comedy that turns the art of the drama into a form of, to borrow a term, cultural inquisition. By contrast, “Saint Joan” is an unstable mixture of straightforward historical drama and slyly comic social critique.
First-rate the production certainly is: Daniel Sullivan is among a small handful of directors whose touch with classics from almost any era is virtually unerring. He has, once again, assembled an excellent cast led by the absolutely radiant Condola Rashad in the title role, as the 15th-century teenager from a small town in the Loire Valley who — well, you probably know highlights of the story: hears voices from God, leads French into victorious battle on behalf of beleaguered Armagnac forces, gets captured, is burned at stake and is later sainted by the Catholic Church, which had initially found her to be a heretic. (Changing her mind is the church’s prerogative.)
Rashad is surrounded by a sterling (and, for Broadway these days, ample) cast of skilled stage actors. As the play opens, Joan is disarming an initially skeptical nobleman, Robert de Beaudricourt, played with lusty, imperious swagger by Patrick Page. Despite his contempt for this impudent lass who claims she has been sent by God to lead the forces of the Dauphin against the English and Burgundian armies, de Beaudricourt has to acknowledge that, with the city of Orleans now in the opposing forces’ hands, the Armagnac options are few. Why not pass the buck, and the possibly lunatic lass, on to the Dauphin?
Shaw depicts Joan with an unusual sincerity, and Rashad duly infuses her performance with a fervid sense of piety and eloquence allied with an iron will. But Shaw unleashes a quiver of satiric arrows when it comes to drawing the characters of the courtiers and churchmen who seek to use her for their own ends, and then to undermine her when the winds of history change direction.
His depiction of the Dauphin as a feckless young brat who just wishes this whole war business would go away is damningly funny (and mostly true). Charles, as the Dauphin is called, is played by Adam Chanler-Berat with a delightful, foot-stamping peevishness. And yet we can hear the pacifist Shaw’s sardonic affection for him when Charles protests, after Joan has almost convinced him to go to war: “But I don’t want to have courage put into me. I want to sleep in a comfortable bed, and not live in continual terror of being killed or wounded.”
As Joan begins her crusade against the English and the Burgundians, the wind is at her back, and Shaw’s play follows the historical record fairly closely as Joan scores initial victories and leads a force to have the Dauphin crowned the French king in Rheims (which is gratingly mispronounced “Reams” throughout). But as he is not playing to his strengths in writing historical exposition, he naturally turns to dialectical arguments between the secular powers and the religious, as they tussle over her fate.
Walter Bobbie brings a grave dignity tinged with righteousness to his performance as Cauchon, the French Bishop of Beauvais. Cauchon is a stickler for the rules — he insists that if Joan will confess her heresy she shall not be handed over to the secular authorities, who are itching to burn her. But he also sees her as a threat to the institution of the Catholic Church, which must remain the only and all-powerful mediator between God and his flock. Cauchon asks (at typical length), “What will the world be like when the Church’s accumulated wisdom and knowledge and experience, its councils of learned, venerable, pious men, are thrust into the kennel by every ignorant laborer or dairymaid whom the devil can puff up with the monstrous self-conceit of being directly inspired from heaven?” A better world, Shaw implies, but that’s not how Cauchon sees it.
The Earl of Warwick (a gloriously dry Jack Davenport) doesn’t hide his contempt for the church. He sees a different threat in Joan, a threat to the power of the aristocrats such as him and to personal fiefdoms. He fears that her quest to unify France, as well the quest of others to unify England, provides a way for kings to swipe power for themselves, with Joan inadvertently leading the charge. Eventually, of course, he and the church can agree on one thing: “If you will burn the Protestant,” Warwick shrugs to Cauchon, “I will burn the Nationalist.”
Though these scenes are smoothly played under Sullivan’s direction (on handsome settings by Scott Pask), as is often the case with Shaw the debates are extended to inordinate length through eloquent but sometimes swampy verbiage. The play often sags under the weight of words — an irony given its heroine’s zeal for action. Even Joan, for all the luminous courage Rashad brings to the role, can become wearyingly fulsome in her righteousness.
The inquisition scene brings welcome touches of mordant humor. Page returns in another role, as the Inquisitor, and his rich bass-baritone, the very sound of absolute authority, is delightful as he swats away the complaints of lesser churchmen that the 64 charges they have carefully brought against Joan have been reduced to a more sensible dozen. Maurice Jones, as the balked Canon de Courcelles, whines like a child whose Christmas toys have been snatched away when the Inquisitor airily dismisses sends his petty accusations of horse-stealing. But this scene, too, despite its high stakes, founders under the excess weight of Shaw’s dialogue, rendering it less moving than it should be given its grim denouement.
Among the other excellent performers are John Glover, as the Archbishop of Rheims, who’s affected by Joan’s piety but sees danger before her, and Daniel Sunjata, gallant and sympathetic as perhaps Joan’s closest ally, the nobleman Dunois, who fights at her side with admiration.
Some productions eliminate the epilogue. Included, as is the case here, the play runs almost three hours. But it contains some of the savviest and most savage commentary on the saga of Joan, as the now-King Charles VII is visited in his bedchamber by the main players — most now ghosts — in the drama of Joan’s life: Cauchon, Warwick, Dunois, the Inquisitor. Here, beyond the travails of life, Joan and her persecutors and exploiters share wry ruminations on their fates, and most notably hers.
It’s an oddly charming scene, the play’s most enjoyable in fact. It pointedly makes the case that for most of the players, Joan’s burning was a most unfortunate incident — and yet an act most of them would not have undone, including the dead Joan, who wryly says to Cauchon: “I hope men will be better for remembering me; and they would not remember me so well if you had not burned me.” But the scene’s tart trenchancy sharply underscores that much of what has come before has been less stimulating, and more enervating.
“Saint Joan” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Wed., April 25, 2018.
Creative: Written by Bernard Shaw; Original Music: Bill Frisell; Directed by Daniel Sullivan; Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Costume Design by Jane Greenwood; Lighting Design by Justin Townsend; Sound Design by Obadiah Eaves; Projection Design by Christopher Ash.
Producers: Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club; Produced in association with Eddie Marks/Ostar.
Cast: Condola Rashad, Walter Bobbie, Adam Chanler-Berat, Jack Davenport, John Glover, Patrick Page, Daniel Sunjata, Tony Carlin, Ben Horner, Maurice Jones, Russell G. Jones, Mandi Masden, Max Gordon Moore, Howard W. Overshown, Michael Rudko, Matthew Saldivar, Robert Stanton, Lou Sumrall, RJ Vaillancourt.