Has there ever been a more appropriate time to stage Shaw's Saint Joan, the story of a girl so convinced of her religious beliefs that she is willing to die for them? Recent events have thrown terrorism into the limelight once more – if it had ever recessed – and here is a tale showing how one woman's ultimate belief led to her death and eventually her martyrdom. Matthew Amer was at the National's Olivier theatre for the topical first night.
Anne-Marie Duff is an actress who makes you eager for a play to begin. In this landmark role, she imbues young country girl Joan with a wide-eyed zeal and vigour, all passion and bluster with not a hint of calculation or cynicism. She is the unrestrained teenager thinking not of consequences. And why would she worry about such things when she has God and the saints on her team? Beat the English – no problem. Crown the Dauphin – easy. Like every good leader she has a way with words that inspires those around her – helped along by the odd miracle.
Such talk and actions, of course, can ruffle the wrong feathers. The Catholic Church prefers doing the instructing to being instructed, the king likes to rule in his own fashion and generals want to wage their own wars. Such hefty adversaries can only lead to an inevitable conclusion. And the conclusion is inevitable, it is a destiny laid out for her. We know this, as the show opens with a fire laid before us, awaiting its eventual victim. Rae Smith's design has the stage backed by an obscene forest of terrifying stakes.
Jocelyn Pook's music is hugely important to this production, being played live by a five-piece band, its beautiful ethereal opening setting a mystical tone for the action. There is more than a little of the transcendental about this production, from the haunted forest stakes to the costumes – ranging from knightly armour to British WWII dress – and the introduction of a microphone for the inquisition. What happened to Joan then could happen at any time, and how would she be treated then? We can hazard a fairly good guess.
Shaw's play is entirely even-handed. The Oliver Ford-Davies's Inquisitor is not a man eager for pain and torture, nor is Paterson Joseph's Bishop of Beauvais, whose desperation to save Joan’s soul is palpable. Even Angus Wright's archly political Earl of Warwick, desperate to see his conqueror dead, argues his case against the rise of nationalism rather than as a personal attack on Joan. Without taking sides it throws arguments about religion, politics and belief into the air for the audience to decide upon.
In Marianne Elliott's production, stylistic twists such as Hofesh Shechter's choreographed cacophonous battle sequence – all crashing chairs and thumping metal – sit comfortably opposite political discussion, combining to lead to the most beautiful and heart-rending of climaxes.
Saint Joan is playing at the National theatre as part of the Travelex £10 season.