Thursday 30 October 2014

Saint Joan teaches viewers valuable history

Overview :  In 1994 Oregon theologian Marcus Borg wrote Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw's classic Saint Joan, penned some 70 years earlier, presents almost as if GBS had known or anticipated Borg and his radical ideas.

Borg posits that Jesus wasn't an "institution" in the way most of the God-fearing Christian world and its adherents are organized to be. Jesus, known as the Son of God, is to Borg a spiritual force that grows and changes. Borg's Jesus puts me to mind of uber-physicist Stephen Hawking's characterization of spirit as "the dynamic force that creates and expands the universe". Ever-growing, never static or entropic. And thus never utterly "knowable". 

Similarly, I find, is the character of Joan of Arc as imagined by GBS. Joan -- known as the farmer's daughter "Jennie" in her French village of Domremy in Lorraine -- is a true believer in God, God's majesty, God's omniscience and omnipotence. Same as most Christians believe. But to Joan, God's will is made known to her not through the Catholic Church nor through Christ nor even through Jesus, really. Rather through two Catholic saints, Catherine and Margaret, with the odd cameo appearance to her of Archangel Michael. Joan hears their voices in what Edgar Allen Poe would call the "tintinabulation" of the bells (bells, bells, bells, bells...), particularly when heard by Joan from afar, as if in echo.

She believes the saints have a direct connection to God that trumps any institutionalized version of God's will as interpreted and "managed" by the Catholic vicars of the 15th century. Like Borg some 5 1/2 centuries later, Joan through GBS has a vast distrust of the powers that be (initial'd TPTB by Borg). And thus she runs amok of both French and English who are TPTB when she leads French troops to victory at Orleans and Rheims. After the latter triumph, it is she -- not the Pope, not the French bishop -- who instals the pusillanimous dauphin as King Charles VII there, France's traditional coronation cathedral. And shortly thereafter her ineluctable trek to the stake kicks up its pace considerably. Her torturous demise occurs scant weeks later. 

For Rome, Joan was a heretic. Pre-Gutenberg Bible (1454) and the advent of the moveable-type printing press, the Vatican had Christendom in a virtual hammerlock on biblical interpretation. And then there is its bureaucracy and its beliefs in papal infallibility, apostolic succession and such. That Joan felt her mandate came almost directly from God and not mediated through church directives, pronouncements and interpretations was too large a threat to ignore. 

For the English peerage and aristocracy, Joan represented a threat to their land inheritances and the perquisites of vassalage. The English also had the matter of their soldierly pride being near-mortally wounded by this village girl in men's military britches.

TPTB could live with no other outcome than this candle being snuffed out once and for all.

What GBS thought : Life experience and literature teach us that the gap between tragedy and hubris can be narrow and thin. Particularly where Big Ideas come into play. And even moreso when they butt up against the Big Institutions that claim provenance and exclusive ownership of "truth". Whether TPTB are organized religion and its various churches, government, or even what outgoing USA President Dwight Eisenhower presciently warned of in 1959 -- "the military industrial complex" -- fact is these powers delight in swatting down pesky challengers, especially when they are cheeky and charismatic.

Often Saint Joan is referred to as a tragedy. It is not. It is a history lesson dramatized. A play with tragic moments but also many comic riffs, almost a bit self-consciously smart-aleck at moments. GBS portended as much in the Preface to the play he wrote at his country estate Ayot St. Lawrence in May, 1924, just four years after Joan was canonized as Saint Joan by the Vatican. GBS, for his part, characterized Joan like this :

"At eighteen Joan's pretensions were beyond those of the proudest Pope or the haughtiest emperor. She claimed to be the ambassador and plenipotentiary of God, and to be, in effect, a member of the Church Triumphant (translation : saved Catholics in Heaven) whilst still in the flesh on earth... She had an unbounded and quite unconcealed contempt for official opinion, judgment and authority, and for War Office tactics and strategy... As her actual condition was pure upstart, there were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous: the other that she was unbearable."

That last point was never more emphatically expressed in GBS's play than when King Charles himself in exasperation and pique says of Joan at the end of Scene 5 : "If only she would keep quiet, or go home!" The audience thought it a suitable laugh-line on opening night.

Fun to be had in the script :  Saint Joan is so rich a script that no doubt countless Ph.D. (English Literature) theses have been written about it. It is a play that is written to be heard far more than to be watched, which is no criticism whatever of Director Kim Collier's ambitious and striking visual interpretation that was a year in the thinking, the reflecting, the try-it-on-for-size-ing in virtually every aspect. More on that below.

But it is the richness of GBS's prose in the piece that is almost as much a treat to listen to as a script from The Bard himself, though in a strictly GBS kind of way : 

E.g. when Joan meets the Archbishop for the first time he makes this observation : 

"Child, you are in love with religion." 

"Am I?" asks Joan. "I never thought of that. Is there any harm in it?" 

"There is no harm in it, my child," the Archbishop says, "but there is danger." 

"There is always danger," Joan responds, "except in heaven. Oh, my lord, you have given me such strength, such courage. It must be a most wonderful thing to be Archbishop." 

Now, did GBS intend this as a laugh-line? I think so. The ACT opening night crowd agreed and complied heartily. Meanwhile this exchange also reveals a constant in Shaw's rendering of these events : there is endless foreshadowing at play throughout along with its theatric cousin dramatic irony (impossible to avoid seeing we all know Joan's life outcome in advance).

Script & casting considerations :  Artistic Managing Director Bill Millerd notes that director Collier and crew chopped a heck of a lot of GBS's 79-page script out in the interests of not losing audiences generally accustomed to 120 minute divertissement, max. Which they did, starting with GBS's 12 pages of Epilogue that would have added another 1/2 hour to a show that inclusive of breaks runs nearly 200 minutes as it is. My reading of the script concludes that Ms. Collier et al did wonderfully well at this self-appointed task. 

In addition Ms. Collier deserves a litany of kudos for the exceptionally imaginative blocking she choreographed for the company up down over around the 3-tier set of risers. Every corner of the stage was well-engaged throughout. 

As Joan, Meg Roe is a delight and perfectly cast : impish, snappy, waspish, charming, and engaging even when being biblically pedantic and tedious. Her final soliloquy to the Inquisition court was moving indeed, particularly her final words to them : "You are not fit that I should live among you." 

Another 12 actors round out the script's 24 roles, obviously doubling and tripling up all over. To this ear and eye there was not one miscue, whatever, in Ms. Collier's casting. A few highlights among the unanimous excellence :

Tour de force performance(s) by Scott Bellis as both the pugnacious and irritable Chamberlain and as chief antagonist Bishop Cauchon who claimed "mercy" was his chief mission. More sustained character immersion for those roles could not be imagined. 

As the egregious English Earl of Warwick, Dean Paul Gibson was just the right mix of pomposity and wit. His "hitman" Chaplain deStogumber (Gerald Plunkett) suffers massive and convincing PTSD after witnessing Joan's immolation. He cries out in abject anguish to Warwick (ironically, GBS no doubt intended) : "You madden yourself with words : you damn yourself because it feels grand to throw oil on the flaming hell of your own temper...O Christ, deliver me from this fire that is consuming me!" Responds Warwick coolly : "If you have not the nerve to see these things, why do you not do as I do, and stay away?" 

Captain Dunois played by Daren Herbert was an utterly convincing field marshal, champion of Joan's, realistic warrior and philosopher soldier. An excellent turn.

As Brother Martin Ladvenu, Kevin MacDonald was heartfelt in his sympathetic embracement of Joan and loyalty to her until the very end when she became a "relapsed heretic" right before her being excommunicated and trussed up for burning. A necessary and well-executed antidote, Ladvenu, to the various other vengeance-mongrels on stage all growling and slavering for blood.

Production values :  Set Designer Pam Johnson and Director Collier got it just right to let the GBS script carry the day rather than overdo the sets and scenery. The top tier of the three risers swivels and rotates : 360 degrees, 180 degrees, 90 degrees, 45 degrees, to move the actors and the perspectives about. At first I thought Gimmicky! as it swung about, but by play's end I appreciated the cleverness of the technique as a way of highlighting the evil occurring on-stage. As noted above, Collier has the cast trotting up down over & around the risers using the bottom two tiers as paths and runways up to the main platform. Very cleverly executed. Her use of the aisles and the balcony for some of the castle-storming scenes worked nicely. The black panels on the sides and upstage were excellent escape hatches for off-stage action.

Costume Designer Christine Reimer has done herself proud with the rich variety of costumes of every sort : from military mail to faux ermine throws to the red-rich robes of the bishop to the black-white habits of the monks. Even the 20th century business dress of some of the men in the final scene reminds us how evil continues to stalk our societies. (GBS for his part proclaimed that there were no villains in this historical snapshot of his. To that I say, simply, Piffle!)

John Webber's lighting design enhanced the production throughout, from the follow-spots behind to the garish back-lighting and subtle stage candlework, all very effective.

And finally, special mention has got to be made of Sound Designer / Composer Alessandro Juliani's exceptionally creative musical montage. English handbells, atonal medieval duets by the singers, loud shrill shrieks to approximate the voices Joan heard, the off-key drones muddled through by the monks humping down the aisles and around the set, the kettle drums and snares heavily mic'd up at just the right times added immensely to the overall atmosphere of dread and doom for the strong-willed girl warrior.

Two glictional ditches : [My sorry attempt to catch anyone's attention from Director, to actor, to speech coach]. And once more it's some priggish angst for pronunciation verisimilitude. 

The word Shaw gives to Blightey soldiers in France is to call them the  "Goddams". Yes. From "God damn!"originally, no question. Now my Websters New International Dictionary of the English Language : Second Edition [Unabidged] Copyright 1953, however, declares the pronunciation should be "GAWD-ham", even spelt "Goddem" in some prints. But on ACT's stage it comes out that the Brits are "GOD-DAMS", with equal emphasis on each syllable, maybe a swidgeon more on the "God-" but not much. And always the second "d" is uttered by each actor. It should not be ! Script researchers would do well to catch this and coach their charges to get it right. Same as I had to look it up to learn that Shakespeare's "Zounds!" in King John is pronounced "Zoonds" instead of how it looks and zounds.

Second is my harpy snipe, play after Vancouver play, at the local tendency to emphasize cursewords. Captain Dunois in Saint Joan is of unmarried parentage born. Thus he is by definition a "bastard". And, typically, even acquires the nickname "Bastard". But no need to pronounce it BAStard! each utterance. In current vernacular a similar epithet might be "dickhead". But it doesn't come out Dickhead! each time. No, mostly just "dickhead" with maybe, maybe a slight emphasis on the first "d", as in "dickhead". 

Who gonna like :  My mentor in labour relations gave me a wonderful cautionary note early in my career 40 years back : "The mind can only absorb what the backside can endure." Now this is not criticism of this Kim Collier production. They've done a great job of axing and chipping and snipping. And the fact is the 3-hours you are there you are listening and seeing George Bernard Shaw's unique flow of words -- expositional, hortative, lyrical/whimsical. Its length notwithstanding, for a terrific history lesson -- and a reminder why chances are, if you're like me, you treat with disdain most of the institutional organizations you've had to cross paths with in your life -- you will go see Saint Joan. Because that cognitive / affective buzz-kill these agencies cause in you will be wonderfully set off by the swack of visual / audio treats this performance provides. Saint Joan is just the kind of mind-stretcher everyone needs now and again.


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