facebook play-alt chevron-thin-right chevron-thin-left cancel location info chevron-thin-down star-full help-with-circle calendar images mail whatsapp directions_car directions_bike train directions_walk directions_bus close spinner11

26 March 1924: Thorndike is first Saint Joan

First Published 23 April 2008, Last Updated 23 April 2008

The role of Joan of Arc, as depicted by George Bernard Shaw in his play Saint Joan, is considered one of the most challenging parts an actress can play. The first to tackle this now famous role on the London stage was Shaw’s friend, the great actress Sybil Thorndike, who opened in the UK stage premiere of Saint Joan on 26 March 1924.

In fact, Shaw had written the play with the actress in mind, though it had received its world premiere on Broadway a year earlier with Winifred Lenihan in the role of Joan. In London, Thorndike took the role she was meant to play, with her husband, Lewis Casson, directing her under Shaw’s instruction at the New theatre.

Shaw’s play is based on the life, death and trial of Joan of Arc, the French soldier and national heroine who was burnt at the stake by the English in Rouen in 1431, at the age of 19. She was canonised by the Catholic Church in 1920. Shaw’s play, written three years later, was based on the detailed records of Joan’s trial, but Shaw was criticised by historians for giving what they considered to be an inaccurate depiction of the period. However, Saint Joan is still regarded as one of the playwright’s greatest works. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, two years after the play’s premiere.

Thorndike is regarded as one of the finest British actresses of the 20th century. After growing up in Rochester, she began her acting career as part of Ben Greet’s company, touring the US for four years, from 1904, in several Shakespearean roles. She went on to make her name as part of the Old Vic company from 1914-1918, playing major leading roles in King Lear, Cymbeline and many others. She continued to work in the West End between the wars, often directed by her husband in plays including Euripides’s The Trojan Women – which they later revived in 1937 – The Lie, Granite and Macbeth. She returned to the Old Vic company years later for its season at the New theatre in 1944, appearing in Peer Gynt, Shaw’s Arms And The Man, Uncle Vanya, Henry IV Parts I and II, alongside Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson.

Thorndike first caught the eye of Shaw when she understudied the role of Candida in 1908. After Saint Joan, she went on to play the title role in his Major Barbara at the Wyndham’s in 1929 and star in his one-act comedy Village Wooing in 1934.

The actress was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1931 and later created a Companion of Honour.

Since Thorndike, several actresses have recreated the role of Saint Joan in London, notably Olivier’s wife Joan Plowright in 1963, Frances de la Tour in 1984, and, at the National Theatre just last year, Anne-Marie Duff. Directed by Marianne Elliott, this latest production was a Laurence Olivier Award-winning success. Duff, who was nominated for Best Actress, had earlier in the year picked up a Critics’ Circle Award and an Evening Standard Theatre Award. 

CB

Share

Sign up

Related articles

If you click through to seat selection (where you'll see either best available or a seating plan), you will be seeing the most up-to-date prices. If this differs from what we've written on the calendar, please bear with us, as those prices will update soon.

We now sell our famous TKTS Booth discounts online here at Official London Theatre.

We are now cancelling all performances up until and including 31 May 2020 to help us process existing bookings whilst we wait for further clarity from the government in terms of when we will be able to reopen.

We are so sorry that in these testing and difficult times you are not able to enjoy the show you have booked for and hope the following helps clarify next steps in respect of your tickets .

There is nothing that you need to do if your performance has been cancelled, but we do ask for your patience.

If you have booked directly with the theatre or show website for an affected performance, please be assured that they will contact you directly to arrange an exchange for a later date, a credit note/voucher or a refund. If you have booked via a ticket agent they will also be in contact with you directly.

We are processing in strict date order of performance, so you are likely to be contacted after the date you were due to go to the theatre. However, we want to reassure you that you will be contacted, and your order will be processed, but please do bear with us.

We’d like to thank everyone who has been patient and kind in dealing with their ticket providers so far and we are sorry that we cannot process your order as quickly as we would like.

Please do not contact your credit card company as that will slow the process down and put an additional burden on our box office and ticket agent teams.

In order for us to serve our audiences the best we can, please do not get in touch with your point of sale if you have booked for performances after 31 May. Please be reassured that if we have to cancel future performances you will be directly contacted by your theatre or ticket provider. Our producers continue to plan for all eventualities dependent on the individual needs of their shows and we will provide further updates on specific shows as and when they become available.

We look forward to welcoming you back into our theatres as soon as we are allowed to resume performances. In the meantime stay safe and healthy.

While theatres are currently closed, various venues and productions are making announcements for their individual shows, including cancellations and rescheduled performances. Please check with the individual shows for details.