By Catherine Hastings
When I got to the Loew Auditorium February 16 to see the National Theatre Live HD video broadcast of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, I had no idea what to expect. Everyone knows the story of Joan of Arc, a peasant girl in France who heard the voice of God command her to become a soldier – so in that sense I guess I had some idea. But Josie Rourke’s interpretation of Shaw’s play takes this medieval story and brings it into the present in a beautiful production set in the modern-day board room. From the first to the final scene, Joan is fundamentally good. She has the ability to capture the minds of soldiers and make them courageous. She is a leader at heart and gives the men the courage they need to drive the British out of France. Her faith saves her country – but it destroys her in the end as she is eventually burned at the stake as a heretic by the Church.
Saint Joan is a deeply intellectual play that explores ideas of faith, politics and morality. It culminates in Joan’s trial, where she is accused of being a heretic. In the NT Live production, this scene was particularly beautiful. It showed the two sides, both with steadfast convictions, at an impasse. Joan cannot revoke the voices that she hears because they are the voices of saints bringing her messages from God. The Church leaders cannot let her go free because they believe that the Devil is communicating with her. No one is a true villain in this story. Both sides try desperately to convince each other, but there can be no compromise, and Joan eventually burns at the stake.
Gemma Arterton truly shines in her role as Joan. She plays a woman who is deeply empathetic and charismatic, and yet also viciously intelligent and steadfast in her convictions. She is so convinced of her visions that she can overcome any obstacle simply by earnestly believing. She is truly a fascinating character to watch and root for, and it makes for a delightful theater experience.