George Bernard Shaw called it ‘a chronicle play’, I suppose a sort of docudrama if a superior one. Saint Joan premiered in New York in 1923 just three years after her canonisation, a surprisingly long time after the actual events in 15th century France. Joan (1412-1431) had long occupied a place in popular imagination and culture. Depictions of her began soon after her death; one of the first was unflattering, by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part I. Schiller’s favourable depiction in The Maid of Orleans was influential throughout the 19th century, inspiring numerous other plays and also operas by Verdi, Giovanna d’Arco (1845) and Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans (1881). Michael Holroyd, Shaw’s definitive biographer, calls the play his ‘only tragedy’ and agrees with Shaw’s own description of it being ‘a tragedy without villains’. Shaw dramatised what was known of her life from the substantial records of her trial, forming the view, expressed in his lengthy preface, that the people concerned acted in good faith according to their beliefs. STC is mounting a ‘new, modern reworking… a stripped back version of Shaw’s original language’ in the Roslyn Packer Theatre (June 5-30) with Sarah Snook in the title role.
There have been numerous notable depictions including Sybil Thorndike, Zoe Caldwell, Judi Dench, Jean Seberg, Lynn Redgrave, and Jacqueline McKenzie unforgettable for STC in 1995. This year’s: Sarah Snook, in a new ‘stripped back version’.
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