An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 16, 2018

Sydney Theatre Company: Shaw, Saint Joan

Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw (1923), adapted by director Imara Savage and Emme Hoy for the Sydney Theatre Company (2018).

Reviewed by Ellie Crookes (Macquarie University)

George Bernard Shaw’s Nobel Prize winning play Saint Joan, like most works of medievalism, ultimately functions as an exercise in reception: a theoretical approach devised by Wolfgang Iser (1971, 1978) and Hans Robert Jauss (1982), which argues that a text’s cultural value is not simply shaped by its context of production but also by its uptake, utilisation and adaption in later contexts. Indeed, though Saint Joan is ostensibly a play about wars and warriors of the fifteenth century it is imbued with concerns and preoccupations of Shaw’s own time. The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Saint Joan acknowledges and builds upon this aspect of Shaw’s play. It does this by utilising artefacts of the past, in this case a medieval French story and an early-twentieth-century British play, to shine a light on political, social and cultural preoccupations of 2018 Australia.

Shaw goes some way to acknowledge the intersection of the medieval past and his twentieth-century present in a retrospective essay ‘Saint Joan: an Epilogue’, published in 1924. Here, Shaw discusses the seeming immutability of Joan’s story in regard to English imperialism, militarism, sectarianism, clericalism, and the ‘woman question.’ Shaw’s discussion on the nature of womanhood, particularly his treatise in support of rebellious women, is especially arresting, with Shaw celebrating Joan as an archetype of powerful subversive womanhood in regard to the clothes she wears (calling her a ‘pioneer of rational dressing[1] for women’ p.7), and the actions she takes (he venerates her military prowess and calls her the ‘first practitioner of Napoleonic realism in warfare’ p.7). Furthermore, Shaw locates Joan within a long history of maverick women, including those of his own era such as George Sand, Rosa Bonheur, and Sylvia Pankhurst.

Shaw’s characterisation of Joan as a model of progressive womanhood, in both his play and essay, is set against the backdrop of Joan’s persecution. This juxtaposition forms a tension that, as expertly delineated by Karma Waltonen in her article ‘Saint Joan: From Renaissance Witch to New Woman,’ aims to ‘showcase a picture of the modern woman caught in a patriarchal society—a woman labelled a witch because she violated the rules of an oppressive sex-gender system’ (2004, 196). Shaw’s ultimate aim seems to have been to position Joan as the personification of ‘modern’ womanhood and as a figure of progressivity within a comparatively antiquated world. This comparison was done, I contend, to align Joan’s ‘backwards’ medieval era with Shaw’s understanding of the regressive notions, especially in regard to womanhood, that were pervasive in his own time and which he openly denigrated.[2]

The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2018 adaptation of Shaw’s play takes up the mantle set down by Shaw of utilising art and stories of the past as a means to put forth progressive, contemporary commentary. The STC’s adaptation of the play, however, takes this focus on reception a step further by having the ‘medievalness’ of Shaw’s play take a back seat to its potential for universality. In respect to this, the STC erases almost all physical reference to the Middle Ages, a directorial decision that sits in direct contrast to Shaw’s original production, which sought to recreate the medieval past on stage through costume, scenery and props[3]. The only exception to this rule of underplaying ‘medievalness’ is the STC’s inclusion of a tableau of Joan (played by Sarah Snook) in silver armour at the beginning of the play, which serves as a nod to the medievalness of the action about to take place. The armour is then removed after the first Act and whisked off stage, which works as a powerful symbol of the play being stripped of its medieval context. From this point forward the play is set in a minimalist space of no discernable time or place. The actors wear vaguely ‘modern’ clothing, with Joan garbed throughout in the uniform of teenagers (a tee-shirt and shorts) and the stage is for the most part almost completely bare of props. One of the only props used is a petrol can, introduced in the final scene. The can is filled with iridescent silver paint that Joan pours over herself, mimicking a modern image of martyrdom, that of religious devotees performing self-immolation.
This scene, a potently visceral addition by the director and played with arresting fragility by Snook, adds a rather modern twist to the story of Joan’s sacrificial death – no longer is the Maid bound to a stake in the vein of distinctly medieval/early modern images of witch burnings, but instead she kneels, alone and armed with a petrol can, in the manner of political protests of twentieth-century martyrs.

The absence of the visually ‘medieval’ in the STC’s production is, I contend, thoughtful and deliberate and not just a product of the popularity of minimalist productions in modern Australian theatre. In the case of this production of Saint Joan the stark stage functions as a blank canvas, inviting connections to be made between what is happening in the play and what is occurring in the audience’s world. Furthermore, what is happening in 2018 is quite strikingly relevant to the concerns of Shaw’s twentieth-century play about a fifteenth-century woman.

Religiosity is one such issue. Religion is, of course, integral to the medieval story of Joan, and is also central to Shaw’s play, where it is positioned as inherently dichotomous, as something to be simultaneously revered and reviled. The religious piety and resoluteness of Joan is venerated by Shaw, while the hypocrisy and corruption of the Church that seeks to condemn her is criticised. Shaw was raised a Protestant, a fact that he directly references in his essay on Joan, and this most certainly had an impact on his version of Joan’s story. Indeed, Shaw paints a particularly scathing picture of the medieval Church, which ostensibly stands in for his modern Catholic Church.

Due to certain recent scandals within the Australian Catholic Church and other religious organisations, a level of mistrust for organised religion resonates particularly strongly with Australian audiences in 2018. The STC’s production acknowledges this relevance by leaning into the parts of Shaw’s dialogue that critique the deceptiveness and duplicity of Joan’s clerical accusers. Most noticeably, the ‘Bishops’ at times all but wink at the audience in complicit mockery of their spiteful and devious actions and arguments.

This undercurrent of religious critique within the STC’s Saint Joan came to a conspicuous head during a ‘question hour’ held with the actors after the production that I attended. At one point, an audience member asked the players about the reaction of the Australian Catholic Church[4] to such an unflattering depiction. Acclaimed Australian actor John Garden (playing the roles of Inquisitor and Archbishop) responded that the STC hadn’t received any kind of response from the Church, but that this wasn’t surprising considering that “they (the Church) are quite busy with other things.” This remark, which was met with snickers from the audience, was unquestionably in reference to the ongoing Royal Commission into child sex abuse and alleged cover-ups by members of the Australian Catholic Church and others, and this interaction drove home the relevance of Shaw’s play to such a potent atmosphere of religious scepticism and suspicion in Australia at this moment.

The issue of Nationalism, specifically Joan’s fight for French deliverance from English invasion, is also central to Shaw’s Saint Joan. This is so, even though the historical Joan of Arc lived before modern conceptions of nationhood, with her fight being over feudal lands not nation states. Shaw acknowledges this anachronism in his essay, but he clearly saw the potential for Joan’s story to work as a facsimile for modern Irish/British tensions, particularly the issue of Home Rule. Shaw, an Irishman himself, was sympathetic to the Irish plight and this empathy for a nation occupied by English/British sovereignty is ever-present in Saint Joan.

Saint Joan’s’ focus on nationalism is certainly relevant today, internationally with Brexit and Trump’s border wall, and in Australia where we have a policy of ‘turning back the boats’ of asylum seekers, and imprisoning refugees offshore for indiscriminate amounts of time. The way that the STC responds to this issue, however, is rather to hide from it instead of examining it, as it did religiosity.
Nationalistic politics are justifiably controversial and as such the STC, whose overall aim for the play is seemingly to present Joan as modern feminist role model (more on this later), needed to manipulate the nationalistic message of Shaw’s play. Thus, the STC production strives to make plain the difference between Joan’s nationalism as a reasonable reaction to invasion, and the less justifiable nationalistic impulse of isolationism. The 2018 production achieves this distinction through the alteration and sometimes complete exclusion of some of the more controversial nationalistic portions of Shaw’s original play, most notably the omission of the line:

JOAN: ‘He (God) gave them (England) their own country and their own language and it is not His will they should come into our country and try to speak our language’ (Act I).

By removing sections such as this, the STC dulls the edges of what in 2018 could rightfully be perceived as overt xenophobia. This directorial decision was undoubtedly made so as to make the play more palatable to modern Australian audiences, though of course Shaw’s original isolationist sentiment would certainly ring true of current Australian immigration policies. As such, perhaps a different production of the play could have combatted this issue of nationalism as it is presented by Shaw head on, instead of hiding from it. However, this would have made for a very different play.

It is easy to understand why the play moderates the nationalistic elements of Shaw’s rendering of Joan’s story, as this would have complicated the self-professed (by both the artistic director Kip Williams and the director Imara Savage) ‘main message’ of the production: to present a powerful female role model for modern Australian audiences. Obviously, overt xenophobia on the part of the heroine would have complicated matters. Savage, in her director’s notes, suggests that her desire to direct Saint Joan stemmed from the play’s relevance to recent feminist movements, particularly #metoo[5], and to the rise of powerful and passionate young female visionaries like Malala Yousafzai, Pussy Riot and Emma Gonzalez. The STC’s assertion, in their advertising materials and in their production program, seems to be that Shaw’s Saint Joan is an effective vehicle with which to speak to the struggles and triumphs of these young women and to show the universality of this type of womanhood in the present day.

This claim of female empowerment as a defining factor behind the STC’s choice to produce this play is commendable but it is, in both intention and execution, not fully realised. The STC’s goal of producing Shaw’s play as a means to celebrate Joan as a powerful and progressive role model is complicated by the fact that Joan, in Shaw’s original version of the play, has very little stage time. Savage, in her notes, acknowledges this and states that Shaw’s play feels like it shows Joan performing ‘a cameo in her own life story.’ Indeed, in the original three-hour version of the play Joan is only onstage for one quarter of the time, with most of the action occurring through descriptions by men, of Joan and her exploits. This absence of Joan from her own story is rectified somewhat by Savage’s restaging of the play, where Joan (and indeed all of the actors) are onstage throughout the production. Furthermore, and perhaps most effectively, is the inclusion of new dialogue in the form of soliloquies performed by Joan, which the director along with writer Emme Hoy fashioned from Joan’s historical Condemnation and Rehabilitation trial documents.[6] These changes centralise Joan within her own story through the very practical fact that she is given more lines, and the writer/director team cleverly include new sections which give more insight into the psyche and motivations of Joan. These new additions flesh out Joan’s character so that the play is less a retelling of Joan’s impact on the lives of kings and soldiers, and more of a story of personal angst and bravery. 

These changes are effective and commendable but Savage’s and the STC’s claim to have chosen the play in reaction to an international atmosphere of powerful women and the #metoo movement is still complicated by the fact that the it had to be so heavily edited that at times it bears little resemblance to the original.[7]

Furthermore, Saint Joan is still a play that calls for one female actor to be surrounded by a troupe of fourteen men.[8] On the one hand, the image of a woman enclosed by a circle of men, which is how the staging is set for most of STC’s production, is powerful in its representative potential for depictions of gendered inequality, and also for its illustration of Joan as a powerful, impressive figure in the face of this imbalance. However, the presence of only one woman onstage for the entire retelling of Joan’s story also plays into the rather pernicious idea, often associated with the valorisation of Joan of Arc, of female exceptionalism. Arianne Chernock (2013), Mary D. Sheriff (1996, 2003) and Jane Tolmie (2006) have all examined the matter of female exceptionality in detail, in both visual art and in written works, and assert that though idealised women are often used as inspirational models, they are also utilised (intentionally or inadvertently) as a means to make a mockery of the majority of women who do not transcend the limitations of their gender or their circumstances. The total absence of any other female character/actor onstage besides Joan feels like a validation, though undoubtedly unintentional, of this notion of female exceptionality, and this complicates the STC’s claims of progressive, feminist intent behind their production.

The biggest takeaway for me from the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Saint Joan is a fresh appreciation for just how malleable works of medievalism are, and how far they can be stretched from their original forms whilst still retaining the essence of their medievalist roots. This fact is a testament to the powerful impact of the Middle Ages on the modern world, and also to the inextricability of modern ideas and concerns from our renderings of the medieval past.

Works cited
Chernock, A. (2013). "Gender and the Politics of Exceptionalism in the Writing of British Women's Histories." Making Women's Histories. P. S. Nadell and K. Haulman. New York, NYU Press.

Iser, W. (1971). "Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response in Prose Fiction." Aspects of Narrative: Selected Papers from the English Institute. J. H. Miller. New York.

Iser, W. (1978). The Act of Reading: a theory of aesthetic response. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Jauss, H. R. and T. Bahti (1982). Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Shaw, G. B. (1962). Platform and Puplit. London, Rupert Hart-Davis.

Shaw, G. B. (1962). Saint Joan: A Chronicle Play in Six Scenes and an Epilogue. Middlesex, New York, London, Penguin Books.

Sheriff, M. D. (1996). The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Sheriff, M. D. (2003). "'So what are you working on?': Categorising the Exceptional Woman." Singular Women: Writing the Artists. K. Frederickson and S. E. Webb. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Tolmie, J. (2006). "Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine." Journal of Gender Studies 15(2): 145–158.

Waltonen, K. (2004). "Saint Joan: From Renaissance Witch to New Woman." SHAW: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 24(1): 186-203.

Ellie Crookes
Macquarie University

[1] Rational Dress, also known as ‘Victorian Dress Reform,’ was a movement of the late nineteenth century that called for ‘healthier’ and ‘safer’ styles of dress for women, in reaction to the corseted  and cushioned designs that were popular at the time.

[2] As demonstrated in his pro-feminist writings, such as his speeches: ‘The Menace of the Leisured
Woman’ (1927) and ‘Women-Man in Petticoats’ (1927).

[3] A number of photographs from early twentieth-century productions of the play can be found online, particularly of the actress Sybil Thorndike who performed in the role of Joan over 450 times. These images attest to the visually ‘medieval’ flavour of the original productions.

[4] It is quite telling that this audience member named the Catholic Church specifically, not Christianity or religious organisations more generally.

[5] It is interesting to note that one of the accused predators ousted by the #metoo movement was the
actor Geoffrey Rush, whose alleged misbehavior while performing in the STC’s production of King
Lear in the 2015-2016 season was the catalyst for his public reprobation. Thus, Savage’s reference to
the movement feels quite pointed.

[6] This directorial decision, according to Savage, was enabled by somewhat lax Australian copyright
laws, which allow Australian productions of plays to be hugely altered by modern writers and

[7] A fact that Shaw would have reviled, having in his essay on Saint Joan professed that critics (whom he calls ‘knights of the blue pencil’) that suggest that the script be shortened, never mind
substantially altered, are effectively ‘disemboweling’ his play.

[8] The STC’s production, however, has its actors play two and even three roles, bringing their number of male actors down to eight.