REVIEW: St. Joan

  • Presented by John Fernald at the Art’s Theatre Club, London.
  • Opening Night: Wednesday, 29th September, 1954

PETER’s Character: Dunois 

DUNOIS

⇐ PETER (Left) as Dunois, with his Page (David Saire)

STORY SYNOPSIS:

Part I

  • Vaucouleurs
  • Chinon
  • The River Loir

Part II

  • The Headquarters of the Earl of Warwick
  • The Cathedral of Rheims

Part III

  • The Bishop’s Court, Rouen
  • Epilogue, twenty-five years later

Shaw characterised Saint Joan as “A Chronicle Play in 6 Scenes and an Epilogue”. Joan, a simple peasant girl, claims to experience visions of Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine , and the archangel Michael, which she says were sent by God to guide her conduct.

Scene 1 begins with Robert de Baudricourt complaining about the inability of the hens on his farm to produce eggs. Joan (Siobhan McKenna) claims that her voices are telling her to lift the siege of Orleans, and to allow her several of his men for this purpose. Joan also says that she will eventually crown the Dauphin (Kenneth Williams) in Rheims cathedral. De Baudricourt (Kevin Stoney) ridicules Joan, but his servant feels inspired by her words. De Baudricourt eventually begins to feel the same sense of inspiration, and gives his consent to Joan. The servant enters at the end of the scene to exclaim that the hens have begun to lay eggs again. De Baudricourt interprets this as a sign from God of Joan’s divine inspiration.

In Scene 2, Joan talks her way into being received at the court of the weak and vain Dauphin. There, she tells him that her voices have commanded her to help him become a true king by rallying his troops to drive out the English occupiers and restore France to greatness. Joan succeeds in doing this through her excellent powers of flattery, negotiation, leadership, and skill on the battlefield.

In Scene 3, Dunois (PETER WYNGARDE) and his page are waiting for the wind to turn so that he and his forces can lay siege to Orléans. Joan and Dunois commiserate, and Dunois attempts to explain to her more pragmatic realities of an attack, without the wind at their back. Her replies eventually inspire Dunois to rally the forces, and at the scene’s end, the wind turns in their favour.

Ultimately she is betrayed, and captured by the English at the siege of Compiègne. Scene 6 deals with her trial. Chaplain John de Stogumber (David March) is adamant that she be executed at once. The Inquisitor (Charles Lloyd Pack), the Bishop of Beauvais (Oliver Burt), and the Church officials on both sides of the trial have a long discussion on the nature of her here-say. Joan is brought to the court, and continues to assert that her voices speak to her directly from God and that she has no need of the Church’s officials. This outrages de Stogumber. She acquiesces to the pressure of torture at the hands of her oppressors, and agrees to sign a confession relinquishing the truth behind her voices. When she learns she will be imprisoned for life without hope of parole, she renounces her confession.

Joan accepts death at the stake as preferable to such an imprisoned existence. De Stogumber vehemently demands that Joan then be taken to the stake for immediate execution. The Inquisitor and the Bishop of Beauvais excommunicate her and deliver her into the hands of the English. The Inquisitor asserts that Joan was fundamentally innocent, in the sense that she was sincere and had no understanding of the church and the law. De Stogumber re-enters, screaming and severely shaken emotionally after seeing Joan die in the flames, the first time that he has witnessed such a death, and realising that he has not understood what it means to burn a person at the stake until he has actually seen it happen. An soldier had given Joan two sticks tied together in a cross before the moment of her death. Brother Martin Ladvenu (Desmond Jordan) also reports that when he approached with a cross to let her see it before she died, and came too close to the flames, she had warned him of the danger from the stake, which convinced him that she could not have been under the inspiration of the devil.

In the Epilogue, 25 years after Joan’s execution, a new trial has cleared her of heresy. Brother Martin brings the news to the now-King Charles (Kenneth Williams). Charles then has a dream in which Joan appears to him. She begins conversing cheerfully not only with Charles, but with her old enemies, who also materialise in the King’s bedroom. An emissary from the present day (at the time of the play, the 1920s) brings news that the Catholic Church is to canonise her, in the year 1920. Joan says that Saints can work miracles, and asks if she can be resurrected. At this, all the characters desert her one by one, asserting that the world is not prepared to receive a saint such as her. The last to leave is the English soldier (Barry Lowe), who is about to engage in a conversation with Joan before he is summoned back to hell at the end of his 24-hour respite. The play ends with Joan ultimately despairing that mankind will never accept its saints.

PETER REMEMBERS SAINT JOAN:

joan1

⇐ PETER (second from the right) and the rest of the cast rehearsing St Joan at the Art’s Theatre, London. (Note PETER wearing leg armour, which he did from an early stage in rehearsals to get used to their weight).

“I was in St Joan in which I played Dunois. Kenneth Williams, as many of you will know, was the Dauphin and was marvellous. Certainly the best Dauphin by far; a spoilt coiled spring of vulnerability, and irrepressibly funny. But the great quality was his faith in Joan.

Most English actors fail compliment their women. The one thing that made Joan unique was the fact that she was a woman. If she wasn’t, how could you assess her as a saint?! Kenneth William’s Dauphin treated her as a woman first. While Siobhan McKenna’s Joan was one of the great performances, I believe it was inspired by this simple premise.

In the cathedral scene when the Dauphin is to be crowned, Kenneth had one of the longest and most difficult of speeches which required intense concentration. On the first night this was even more intense, and nerve racking. It was a great speech and he delivered it beautifully.

For his coronation Dunois, my character, was resplendent in full armour as leader of France’s military might. Rightly or wrongly I was placed by the production centre stage – a position I knew Kenneth would much preferred he was in! He was wrong, as his speech was much more effective when it was by his throne, with Joan by his side. If he’d have delivered it centre stage, it would have appeared as a “purple passage” and lost its sincerity and reality.

No one else spoke in this scene as we were like the peers and the government listening to the ritual proceedings of the coronation. It was the triumphant scene, before Joan’s fall from grace and reincarnation. But it lasted twenty minutes and we all had to stand still, as well as listen, intently.

I believe that both Assistant Director, Sir Peter Hall, and the plays’ author, George Bernard Shaw, were wrong about the relationship between Dunois and Joan.

Dunois treated her as she was to herself: a peasant girl. He was to her a glorious, handsome soldier, who was capable of giving her all of the man that he was, with the help of God”.

IN RETROSPECT:

joan-1

PETER as Dunois (kneeling), hands his orders to Joan ⇒

Probably of all Shaw’s plays ‘Saint Joan’ has the best chance of lasting, not only for being free from faded argument but also for the sustained excitement of its treatment of history.

It is all admirable theatre, made all the more gripping on account of Shaw’s fairness to the judges and his characteristic refusal to use Joan as a romantic pawn. In 1964, a full-scale revival was overdue; in the meantime audiences were grateful to the Art’s Theatre for its courage in putting so massive a play on its small stage, and in finding such an impressive cast.

Voices were heard just as freely in Connemara as in the Voges, and an Irish Joan was a reasonable innovation. Siobhan McKenna, who carried a natural ring of poetry, had no difficulty in persuading audiences that filled the Art’s that Joan’s link with the Saints was the driving force in her life. Sybil Thondike made her a more plausible leader; here Joan’s domination of her men sprung mainly from her simple mysticism.

It would’ve been too much to ask that in a pocket production the play should get its full effect at every point, but director John Fernald wasted nothing at his disposal, and Paul Mayo’s skeleton sets suggested all that was needed, without fuss.

Kenneth William’s Dauphin made an odd and interesting study of senile adolescence. Meanwhile, Dunois, the French general who suffered most from Joan’s military unorthodoxy and who yet remained devoted, was played by PETER both attractively and with great passion. The humorous superciliousness of Douglas Wilmer’s Warwick was excellent.

No one, it seems, are ever certain about the Epilogue to this play. It is an old quarrel, in which Shaw made his answers to his critics. He felt obliged to show that his heroine didn’t finish at the stake; but in the theatre this mixed roll-call of ghosts and dreamers still seemed somewhat of an anti-climax. Surely Warwick’s final “The last of her? I wonder!” says everything to everyone with the merest smattering of history.

SAINTLY FACTS:

Quite early during rehearsals, PETER took to wearing armour so that he wouldn’t feel strange in it during performances. (Please see additional photographs of PETER in leg armour).

The first dress rehearsal took place at The Art’s Theatre, Cambridge, before moving to the West End. It was reported in Plays and Players that when the final curtain fell, ‘There was hardly a dry eye in the house, amidst the deafening applause and shouting’.

Every night at the Art’s Theatre was a sell-out, and the run had to be extended.

George Bernard Shaw describes PETER’s character of Dunois as: “A good-natured and capable man who has no affectations and no foolish illusions”

When the play moved to St. Martin’s in 1955, PETER left the cast to film his role as Pasaunius in Alexander the Great.

Dunois2

COMMENTS:

Mr PETER WYNGARDE makes a fine Dunois…” The Observer

PETER was ALL Dunois!” Siobhan McKenna


The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

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