Socialist Worker

Saint Joan: visionary, liberator or fanatic?

by Ken Olende
Issue No. 2061

Anne-Marie Duff as Saint Joan (Pic: Kevin Cummins)

Anne-Marie Duff as Saint Joan (Pic: Kevin Cummins)

In 1428 the peasant who would become known as Joan of Arc announced that voices from god had told her she would liberate France from English occupation.

Over the next two years Joan came to lead an army and crown a king, before being tried as a heretic and burnt at the stake. She was about 19 years old when she died.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw tries to recreate the medieval mindset in his play about Joan of Arc. Shaw’s Joan terrifies the Catholic church by speaking of her personal relationship to god – thereby denying the need for the church to mediate between them. She also terrifies the aristocracy by stressing her loyalty to her country, rather than to her feudal lord.

One cardinal says that her ideas could upset Christendom as much as Mohammed, who had heard voices from god and went on to create a new religion.

Joan is shown demanding an army of soldiers that will fight for a cause rather than just serve a corrupt lord. Here she anticipates future uprisings, such as Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army from the English revolution, or the 1789 French Revolution that would see the complete overthrow of the feudal regime.

Some critics have reacted to this play by saying it deals with religious fanaticism. But Joan’s miracles are hardly central to the plot – the contradictory reasons why people followed her and abandoned her are far more important.

The powerful central performance by Anne-Marie Duff is both sympathetic and scary. She swings between being a straight talking peasant, a poetic visionary, a liberator – and a fanatic.

The production takes place on a rotating wooden. Actors not in a scene tend to sit in judgement on wooden chairs around the stage – a judgement that changes throughout the play.

Saint Joan
by George Bernard Shaw
National Theatre, London
Until 4 September

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Tue 24 Jul 2007, 18:14 BST
Issue No. 2061
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