Question: What is Saint Joan about?
Jackie Maxwell: The play is based on the life of Joan of Arc, a young French woman who led armies and crowned a King before being burned at the stake for heresy at the age of 19 in 1431. Bernard Shaw was inspired to write Saint Joan after Joan of Arc was made a Saint in 1920.
Shaw’s play is set in France in the 1400s, during the Hundred Years’ War. The main story charts the rapid rise and fall of this charismatic young woman, Joan, who claims she has been instructed by God to liberate the captive city of Orléans, and lead the heir to the throne, the Dauphin, to become King of France. Her mission and her cause are taken up with great enthusiasm by the French soldiers, ordinarily a rough and mercenary group of men. As Joan becomes more and more successful, the leaders of the Church and the politicians decide she is becoming dangerously popular, and they manufacture her downfall.
Behind this lies another story—about the rise of nationalism and the notion of what that is. What is a nation? A nationality? The idea of French for the French, English for the English? Before this, all had been under the rule of feudal landlords. People didn’t fight for a country, they fought for their feudal lord. The last thing the lords wanted was nationalism, because it took away their power. Similarly the Church was against Joan, because she claimed she didn’t need the “middle man” (the Church)—she could talk directly to God. The Church, of course, wanted to put down any such notions.
So in Saint Joan we have the roots of nationalism and religious fervour, which today are still such potent issues. It will be fascinating for students to literally witness how the very idea of nationalism took shape; to watch it through the eyes of this teenage girl and see how she does or doesn’t make her way through it.
Q: Who plays the role of Joan?
JM: Tara Rosling will be playing Joan. In addition to the fact that Tara is a terrific actress, it was necessary to have an actress who can look like a peasant girl and then have us believe that she hears “voices.” Joan has to have both of these sides.
Q: What is the driving force behind Joan?
JM: Her own very strong will and her belief that she has been directly instructed by God. In his preface to the play, Bernard Shaw wrote: “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.” She was brilliant and charismatic but she was also arrogant, stubborn, and opinionated! During the trial, one of the prosecutors says, “We don’t even need to worry about prosecuting her; she’s going to prosecute herself.” It’s why she is a compelling contemporary character—both hero and anti-hero.
Q: What’s your vision of this play?
JM: I was working on the epilogue, where Shaw gives us a lot of information by time-travelling forward. He brings in a cleric who tells us, “It’s 1920 and Joan has just been made a saint.” I thought, that’s the beginning of the play: the end of World War One. Nationalism is what fueled European politics right through until the First World War.
The play’s designer, Sue Lepage, then found pictures of the Rheims Cathedral, where the Dauphin was crowned. This cathedral had been bombed in WWI. It became our setting.
The play now begins with soldiers emerging through smoke and you realize that one of the soldiers is Joan. You quickly grasp that Joan is a ghost and the rest are WWI soldiers. From there we go back in time to understand Joan’s story. I think this is a more immediate way of getting us into the play and it gives us a context. Also, visually, this means we will be moving between medieval times and the WWI years and interestingly, both eras are very similar in look.
Q: What do you find most interesting about Shaw and this play?
JM: What I always find interesting about Shaw, and especially with this play, is that his work has relevance, and often, in fact, is eerily prescient. I feel too, that it’s time to produce Saint Joan again. The notion of nationhood is still tearing the world apart in various different ways, so again, let’s look at that; let’s look at how it all started. What does this iconic story, this figure of Joan represent? Was she really a saint or just a girl who came along that somehow persuaded everybody? Would we know this girl if she appeared today? Are we beyond help? How do we even recognize saviours in our midst? I think this in itself, is a provocative question.