As the audience come on so do the actors. Slow, silent shapes all in black, freezing in one corner of the stage until the soft music is broken by the sound of fluttering birds and Joan (Kate Sawyer) runs on. The Faction’s choral work is always strong, and this is particularly apparent in Joan of Arc, where the chorus use physical theatre to act out the visions and stories being told on stage. They are a mysterious, almost menacing presence onstage, adding greatly to the supernatural elements of the story. They embody the marching army, scattered reports of battle shouted from all corners of the stage in an effectively frantic piece that foreshadows the recurring theme of multiplicity of interpretation.
From this very first sound affect Joan is aligned firmly with nature. She rubs hands full of clay over her head, forming a helmet, like a benediction bestowed by God. The soldiers, too, have clothes smeared with clay, but the fact that this extends to both sides suggests that the side of God is perhaps not quite as clear-cut as first suggested. This openness of interpretation is something more fully explored in the ending scene, where overlapping voices give out their own versions and understanding of Joan’s story – and, through it all, Joan stands central, her faith still burning.
It is Sawyer’s Joan that makes this play: alternately full of the rage and fire of God and possessed of a serene, otherworldly rage, she runs the full gamut of emotions with aplomb. Her moments of coming to herself, when the passion leaves her and she is struck by what she has done, are managed admirably, never feeling out of character in contrast to the dehumanised terror of the battlefield. Christopher York and Christopher Hughes (Dunois and Burgundy) show similar emotional range: Dunois is both wonderstruck and full of a trembling rage, and the manic-eyed Burgundy’s redemption is one of the most touching scenes in the play.
Natasha Rickman excels as the callous Queen Isabel, but is shakier as the Dauphin, coming off a little breathless at times. The scenes between Joan’s father (Christopher Tester) and her wooer (Francis Woolf) feel a little flat, although this could be blamed on un-naturalistic dialogue rather than the fault of the actors themselves. Some of the emphasis on virginity seems a little out of place to a modern audience, especially given the emphasis on giving all points of view, and there are some audience members for whom Joan’s insistence on purity will start to wear thin. However, the conviction with which Sawyer plays the part helps to allay some of that irritation, only a minor quibble in an otherwise impressive show.
Joan of Arc manages to encompass both the earthly and the divine, a powerful addition to a season that explores fate, love and the repercussive effects of individual decisions.