Sarah Snook is a Joan of Arc for our times in Sydney Theatre Company's revolutionary new production
The story of Joan of Arc has been told over and over again. If you need a refresher, she’s the young woman who, on a mission from God, helped lead France to new victories in the Hundred Years War, but was burned at the stake for flimsy charges of heresy. Also, Zendaya wore a Joan-inspired look to this year’s Met Gala.
The Catholic church eventually canonised her as a saint, she’s been held up as a symbol of France, freedom and rebellion, and she has been the subject of countless films, plays and other media – most of which were created by men. Joan has been very profitable for men and their careers from the moment she dressed in men’s clothing and went to war, and Saint Joan is no exception.
Written by George Bernard Shaw, it first premiered nearly a hundred years ago (in 1923), shortly after Joan was named a saint – she was hot pop-culture property at the time, and this play was a large part of the reason why Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. His play dramatises Joan’s story in several long scenes that take nearly three hours, and the lion’s share of the lines in his original script aren’t for Joan; they’re for the men around her. It’s a tragedy written at arms-length from its subject.
In this production, Imara Savage – an incisive, keen-eyed director who draws lines of theatrical tension with razor-sharp focus – has done some necessary housekeeping. Working with playwright Emme Hoy, and using transcripts of Joan’s trials (Joan’s own words taking pride of place), she has sliced the play to a tightrope-walk of about 90 minutes. It’s an interrogation of Joan’s interrogation; a behind-the-curtain study of the men who break down women who dare to challenge their ways.
Sarah Snook (the award-winning actor from Predestination, The Dressmaker and Black Mirror) is Joan, the young peasant woman who hears voices of the Archangel Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret after a traumatic run-in with the English army. They compel her to crown a Dauphin, fight back the British and help set France free. “Would you rather be an empty house, or a burning house?”
And so Joan rises like a phoenix, burning with cause, piety and strong will. Snook is a resolute and full-hearted Joan, a quick thinking teenager and then young adult who believes so fully in her power from God that she will not vanish or lower her voice. She is a constant, heartbreaking presence onstage, impossibly small up against a wall of black-clad men. “You are a cannon,” her voices say, and she is: a shock of might in a seemingly impenetrable field.
David Fleischer’s design, with clever lighting by Nick Schlieper and heartbeat-raising sound by Max Lyandvert, seems to stretch the play high above our heads, as though the divine isn’t too far away to touch. Its curtained columns and sudden shock of rain makes the stage feel limitless. Renee Mulder’s costumes are funereal, suggesting the roles of the men around Joan with tiny details – collars for clerics (John Gaden, Sean O’Shea, William Zappa), a crown for a petulant Dauphin-turned-king (Gareth Davies), a hood and waterproof jacket for a general and executioner (Brandon McClelland), among others. The men are a barrier in word and deed, overwhelmingly ever-present; together, as military, church and monarchy, they crush Joan. And it is crushing to watch.
Last year, Melbourne’s the Rabble created Joan, an experimental theatre work about Joan of Arc that forcibly divested the woman from the commercial, romanticised aspects of her legacy (she’s used to sell brie, beans and clothes, among other things), reminding us that Joan was a person who has been sold out and violated by superstructures like the patriarchy, the church and capitalist trading for centuries. Sydney’s Saint Joan is also a reclamation, but this one works from inside the system: it takes a classic play and gives it back to its rightful subject.
When Joan comes to the end of her trial, and her death – her murder – is inevitable, Imara Savage and Sarah Snook hold firm, committing to its magnitude. Joan is given dignity and all-too-human compassion, and it feels, finally, like Joan’s own play is allowed to be for Joan, and for all women who dare to believe they can change the world. It’s yearning. It’s defiant. It’s devastating.