SAINT JOAN by George Bernard Shaw
Director Imara Savage
Additional Text: Imara Savage and Emme Hoy
Who would have thought that a village girl in her teens could change the course of history? Circa 1412 you definitely wouldn’t but in the 21st century we can. We only have to look at courageous Malala Yousafzai and her Nobel Peace Prize for the advocacy of human rights ‒ particularly for the right for girls and women to be educated ‒ to realise that we have come a long way. Poor Saint Joan won no such accolades for her efforts in her lifetime and it was not until 1920 that she was canonised as a saint by Pope Benedict XV.
This is my second viewing this year of a production based on the life of Saint Joan of Arc. The first was the Milk Production performed by the gifted Lucy Jane Parkinson that coincided with Sydney’s Mardi Gras. The Milk Production emphasised the politics of gender in its portrayal of Joan’s life; highlighting the tragedy of the life of this young woman who donned boy’s clothing and was more influential in her time then leaders of countries and religious orders alike. (More here).
Imara Savage’s reworking of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Saint Joan’ is of similar tack, emphasising the cultural inadmissibility of a girl being allowed to hold power in a world of patriarchal institutions. Shaw himself was acutely aware of this injustice and we only have to think about his better known work ‘Pygmalion’ (‘My Fair Lady’) to realise that his female characters are continually being forced to grapple with the gormlessness and rigidity of their male contemporaries and society. Unfortunately for the real Saint Joan, the bigotry of her era meant that her successful military campaigns and her public influence ensured her life would be a short one and her end brutal.
Joan was a heroine in a time when convention dictated that a woman ‒ and most certainly a simple village girl ‒ could not hold influence to rival that of monarchs and religious leaders and in this production we first meet ‘Saint Joan’ standing centre stage, in silence. To her right are the good and influential men of politics and to the left are the good and influential men of the church (or maybe it was the other way around. They looked and sounded very similar). Only when the conversation about Joan becomes more detailed do we realise she is doomed. It is not for her religious belief which is devout, nor for her military success that has advantageously turned the tide of the Hundred Years War; it is because this mere chit of a girl has significant political and social influence. She is a village girl who wears boys’ clothing, she has served her purpose, she has become influential and therefore she must die.
Strangely, we also feel that these men are fond of Joan. Later in the play when they are interrogating Joan, you understand they feel that if they can persuade her to admit to her follies, to take up the garb of a women again, to admit that it must have been the devil's influence that facilitated her outrageous military success, and to essentially deny the brilliance of her military campaign to restore France’s power then she ‒ because they are such generous men of power ‒ will be allowed to live the rest of her life in prison.
I enjoyed the scripts subtlety in not presenting Joan as perfect. We are made aware that in war Joan is as careless of her men’s lives because of her fierce conviction that she is God's tool, as those for-mentioned clerical and political personages are that they must be correct in their assessment and condemnation of Joan because ... they are men.
Sarah Snook brings to life a luminous Saint Joan, and we can only wonder at the influence and extraordinary life of this 15C woman.