A new play by Louise Brealey (star of Sherlock and co-writer of The Charles Dickens Show) begins this year’s season at the National Youth Theatre and if it is anything to go by it will prove to be an exciting one.
The plot charts the rise and fall of Pope Joan, a medieval figure of legend or history– depending on one’s point of view—whose learning and ambition leads her to the papacy but whose hidden gender is finally discovered with tragic consequences.
It is fitting that a story that was often used for political purposes should have such a clear one here—though now it is transformed from anti-papacy propaganda to highlighting the unequal position of women within institutions and wider society. The script certainly brings this out; demanding and suitably preachy for a play set in a church, Joan is used as a mouthpiece for contemporary gender issues. Sophie Crawford, in the title role, does an admirable job with a part full of scripture and pained soliloquys, though at times this gets the better of her.
It is perhaps the physical acting and staging, though, which carries the story forward to its tragic conclusion and does better than the words at portraying the violence of men shown to women—then and now—who transgress societies rigid boundaries.
In this respect the actors are led by Rob Willoughby playing the scheming cardinal Anastasius; each movement is accompanied by a dainty pinching of the robes or a swish of cape, emphasizing the precise and poised nature of the male threat to Joan’s position.
A host of monks bulks out the cast (35 in total) but far from being redundant, their movement, at one moment low like rats whispering around the body of Joan and the next carrying her through the air as though to heaven, highlights the ambiguous nature of church and society. They are both angels and demons, like the clouds of incense which fill the church, they represent at once both Joan’s desire and her annihilation.
It is these ensemble moments, which are the productions most powerful. Three of them, each accompanied by a euphoric song from Anthony and the Johnsons provide the plays pivotal scenes at the beginning, middle and end. Punctuating the heavy dialogue with atmospheric music, lighting and synchronized movements they transcend the historical and theological setting and make Joan a truly symbolic figure for our age.
Set like a jewel in Christopher Wren’s St. James’s Church, the play is both, poignant and political-historical and yet prescient for our own times. Full of promising performances and well judged scenes, it provides an excellent start to the new season at the National Youth Theatre.