In his preface to the play, George Bernard Shaw wrote, ‘There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent ... It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.’ What concerned Shaw in the 1923 première production of Saint Joan was some three and a half hours in the telling.
In 2018, director Imara Savage, with collaborators Emme Hoy (of the Sydney Theatre Company’s young writers group) and title actor, Sarah Snook, has slashed it to an uninterrupted ninety-five minutes, while absorbing new material from trial transcripts and previous Joans by Mark Twain and Friedrich Schiller. Remarkably, this new Saint Joan retains the raw, condensed essence of Shaw’s perceived ‘good intentions’ and what men do in their pursuit, while telling the tale from end to beginning. In doing this, Savage has committed a heresy fit to make a purist faint.
The production opens roughly midway through the Hundred Years War between France and England as the nineteen-year-old Joan is on trial for her life. That war, a typical stop-start seasonal conflict, which, to at least four generations – as Joan remarks – was a war without end, had delivered much of France to England and her various French allies. Joan herself had been delivered to the English by the French hierarchy, no longer able to countenance her success and her audacity, never mind her rude femaleness.