Review: Gemma Arterton in Bernard Shaw's SAINT JOAN at the Donmar Warehouse

Bernard Shaw is a playwright that fascinates me: he has always been a man that has struck me as being "before his time" in many ways - from Major Barbra to Pygmalion - but Saint Joan really is the epitome of that to me. Despite being written in the 1920s, this new production mirrors the feminist issues risen in the play perfectly and it's more necessary than ever.

The story of Saint Joan mirrors the life of Joan of Arc, or as much as we are allowed to know of it through the files on her trial in the 1400s. Shaw describes the play as being "A Chronicle Play in 6 Scenes and an Epilogue" and it's exactly that: a play with six long scenes (most in the first act) and an epilogue. Most people call it "a tragedy without a villain" because by the end of the play, Joan is being tried by people who are actually trying to plead her innocence, but this new production brings fresh light to that and it seems as though misogyny is the real villain at play.

Simon Holland Roberts and Niall Buggy in Saint Joan at the Donmar Warehouse

Joan was a woman of war who protested so that she could lead an army dressed in men's clothing. The men overlooked the "sin" that this was to start with in favour of Joan seeming to be a spirit like no other, but they went backwards on themselves when things started going wrong. The piece is told in a modern setting with all of the men being modern day stockbrokers, but Gemma Arterton's Joan remains in period dress, a very blatant metaphor for how archaic the misogyny in this play is. It's intelligent and effective and highlights the side of this play (that people have apparently neglected) perfectly.

Talking of Gemma Arterton, her performance in this play is nothing short of perfect. I think in her recent stints that I've seen her in like Made In Dagenham and Nell Gwynn, I'd let myself forget how fantastic of an actress she is and this play gives her the chops to show that off once again. She is fast becoming one of the most iconic feminist actresses in England (I say that because she plays openly feminist roles, not just because she is a feminist) and I love it. Other stunning performances come from Fisayo Akinade who is so lovable in this hot bed of mysogny that he's almost the equivalent of modern comic relief; he's funny, charming and silly in the midst of this very serious and sometimes confusing script. Similar has to be said of Hadley Fraser's performance, a man who is always delightful to see on the stage.

Fisayo Akinade and Gemma Arterton: the two stars of the show in Saint Joan at the Donmar Warehouse

Josie Rourke's direction of the piece was fantastic and while Robert Jones's constantly rotating table was an interesting design choice, I appreciate Rourke's approval of it as it made the play feel much less stagnant. It's so easy to make a play that is essentially just a series of long scenes feel so static and boring when it's just a lot of sitting around, so making the set move instead of the actors was a very smart move indeed; Howard Harrison's lighting design also added to that illusion well.

Saint Joan is not a perfect play and it does have it's more dull moments, but this production is a fantastic way to see it in the modern age. As I said on Twitter afterwards: I did not know that this play could be so relevant in 2016, but it really is.

Saint Joan at the Donmar Warehouse is sold out, but you could try your luck at some last minute returns here. Alternatively, National Theatre Live will be screening the play to cinemas around the World on February 16th. Check local listing times here.

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