Saint Joan (Donmar Warehouse)

As the audience files in for this heavily trimmed but still hefty revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Twenties tragedy, Gemma Arterton occupies a platform in the middle of the stage. Brandishing a sword she prays, while on screens behind her poppy petals tumble and an unnerving question looms — ‘Must a Christ perish in every age to save those that have no imagination?’

It’s a haunting opening that establishes the quiet fanaticism of this awkward outsider — a medieval peasant girl divinely inspired to become a soldier, turf the English out of France and challenge the establishment.

But then, abruptly, we move from the fifteenth century into a world of boardrooms and laptops, where jittery stock market reports are projected on giant screens. While the still very medieval-looking Joan burns with zeal, the men who surround her are suited drones obsessed with strategy and protocol. They react to her with violent disgust, condemning the way she dresses and branding her a witch.

Whenever Arterton is at the heart of the action, the scenes have a bright vitality. She glows with ardour. Engaging support comes from Fisayo Akinade, who makes the cowardice of the French Dauphin peculiarly charming. Rory Keenan’s Inquisitor is ruthlessly cold, and Elliot Levey has the right mix of sincerity and rigour as Cauchon, an eloquent yet almost robotic bishop who insists that Joan must have a fair hearing.

But when Arterton is offstage, there’s a lack of pace and verve. This is a play packed with debate, and on a slowly revolving set the lofty arguments so loved by Shaw develop ponderously, especially during the final twenty minutes of the first half.

Josie Rourke’s production shows that Shaw’s observations about class, religion and gender are still resonant. Yet its topical emphasis on fundamentalism and nationalism feels a little on-the-nose. The modern setting makes some of the specifics of its religious wrangling seem incongruous, and alongside the brilliance of Shaw’s best writing there are bloodless passages of didactic talkiness.

3/5

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