By William Wolf


Whenever I plan a trip to London, the first thing I do is check on what’s at the National Theatre. I suspect that many Americans, critics or just theater lovers, do the same. The odds are good that at any time of the year the National is likely to be staging something of quality and importance.

So it was with my last trip, enriched by seeing a remarkable production of Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” blessed with a terrific performance in the title role by the luminous Anne-Marie Duff. The remarkable actress demonstrated her ability to make Joan profoundly human, not merely a mouthpiece for Shaw’s ideas and intellectual approach to the subject. Duff communicates her idealism, her fierce belief in what she perceives as her sacred mission, as well as her innocence in coming up against the awesome power that she confronts.

She also reveals her fears about meeting the fate in store for her, the anxiety as she faces her tormentors and the utter dread of being executed. By balancing this against her determination to stand firm, even though she temporarily wavers, Duff reaches our emotions and makes us feel deeply for her as a person, not merely as a historical figure or a committed heroine. The scenes appear terribly real and I have never seen such a great portrayal of Joan.

The production itself, under the direction of Marianne Elliott and enhanced by Rae Smith’s set design, is marked by an interesting idea—chairs as props that are used with dramatic purpose. In the battle scenes, cast members bang the chairs loudly against the floor to simulate the sound and fury of the fighting. Then, as the execution by burning nears, the chairs are stacked into what resembles a pyre.

Not everything indicates brilliance. As so often happens nowadays, misguided efforts to look contemporary intrude, in this case by having a microphone placed in front of Joan when she speaks in her defense. What on earth was the director thinking? The rest of the play, while done in pseudo-modern dress, still has a period feel as a result of the situation and the dialogue. But a microphone? It’s a useless and annoying ploy.

Fortunately, the overall production, including excellent supporting performances in addition to Duff’s triumph, has sufficient strength and impact to allow one to gloss over fleeting silliness.

Seeing this “St. Joan” would have been worth a trip to London in itself but the opportunity to catch the new version of Maxim Gorky’s “Philistines” by Andrew Upton made for a double coup. It was fascinating to see the play by Gorky that was first staged in 1902 in St. Petersburg under the direction of Stanislavsky. Looking at the work more than a century later, I find it amazing to see how advanced the playwright was both artistically and politically.

The play takes us into a household split by the tensions between a nasty, rightist father Vassily (Phil Davis) and his son, Pyotr (Rory Kinnear), who falls in love with Elena (Justine Mitchell), a widowed lodger who is rebelliously independent. The playwright’s approach as translated and adapted is realistic, and director Howard Davies stages it that way. The tone of the acting also conforms to this vision. Much is going on in the drama, some of it deadly serious, other elements comedic. Pyotr, who has been a law student has been suspended and is at sea as to what he wants to do with his life. His sister, Tanya (Ruth Wilson) is despondent, suicidal and frustrated by unrequited love. There are also Nil (Mark Bonnar), Vassily’s foster son, and Akulina (Stephanie Jacob), Vassili’s wife, who by the play’s end will express her disdain for her husband.

It turns out that Vassily informs on two friends of Pyotr who have been arrested in connection with a play they have staged, which leaves Vassily despised. One of the best scenes occurs after Elena and Pyotr decide to run off together. Elena tells off his parents for their attitude in no uncertain terms. In an electric, shockingly defiant moment, Mitchell as Elena commands the stage as she informs them that she and Pyotr will live together unmarried and she’ll spend her time f-----g him, and f-----g him, and f-----g him. The language is jolting in its modernity, and one wonders what the original Russian would have been in the 1902 timeframe.

Given the play’s liberal bent, it is easy to see why it ran into problems when first produced. The streak of youthful independence it celebrates, its condemnation of parental authority and its cheering for social change combine to make the play resonate even today. Seeing it revived proved to be exciting, and one would hope for a staging of it in New York, which can also be said for “St. Joan.” That may be wishful thinking, given the problem of financial viability in such crossings.

I was less impressed with the third play I saw at the National, Matt Charman’s “The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder,” admittedly well acted and effectively staged by Sarah Frankcom in the charming Cottesloe Theatre. Pinder (Larry Lamb) has built himself a household with four wives, not from any religious sect adherence, but as a result of finding women in need and taking them as so-called wives. (He makes it official with oddball ceremonies.)

A young son in the household is having growing pains and problems figuring out his place and coping with the strange situation. The trouble comes—and this is quite predictable—when Pinder decides to bring a fifth wife into the entourage. There is resentment and emotions explode. But the play never becomes very convincing, and even to the extent that one can be convinced, the author doesn’t dig deep enough to make the drama any more than a cautionary tale. If a guy is so inclined, four wives are enough. He has to know when to stop while he’s ahead.


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