Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Everybody ought to have a maid

July 16, 2007

Anne-Marie Duff as Joan
Photo: Kevin Cummins/NT 2007
The National Theater seems to be pulling out all the stops this summer when it comes to producing spot-on, clever and engaging versions of typically long-winded and philosophical material. Following a veritably breezy staging of Maxim Gorky’s Philistines (that I talked about here), Marianne Elliott has mounted a funny, moving and surprisingly brisk version of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Of course this is a work full of currently relevant overtones about religious fundamentalism and nationalism. It is also a play about how heroes are made and destroyed. Elliott allows Shaw to say what he wants without pedantic interventions or avoiding the intellectually challenging elements in the script. She wisely allows the comic elements of the piece to have their full weight balancing some of the more philosophical elements as Shaw surely intended. The staging is centered around a single large black raked platform that rotates not only to help designate changes in setting but periodically during scenes as well, adding a rather cinematic element to some exchanges. The costumes have been updated to a WWI appearance which provides a more contemporary edge overall. The pacing is quick and despite some STOMP-inspired activity meant to take the place of battle scenes the choreography is excellent. There is live musical accompaniment throughout and even though it strays into New Age territory a little too often, it adds a very nice touch.

But really all of this is secondary to a radiant, compelling performance from Anne-Marie Duff as the eponymous saint. She maintains the sense of Joan being a “simple” country girl avoiding those Song of Bernadette overtones that can destroy lesser actors. Her rage and desperation are acutely felt by the audience throughout the performance and she helps maintain a sense of dramatic tension and urgency even in the play’s most didactic passages. She also has the luxury of a wonderful cast surrounding her, including especially strong contributions from Patterson Joseph as the Bishop of Beauvais and Paul Ready as the Dauphin Charles. In short, it may be a long time before this strong of a production of one of Shaw’s major plays comes around again.

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