There’s a moment in Saint Joan, the new production of the George Bernard Shaw play that opened at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Wednesday, in which Joan (played by Condola Rashad) tells her male companion that she wishes he was a baby so that she could nurse him “for a while.” Her friend is surprised. Not, you know, because it’s an unlikely come-on, but because Joan—battle-hungry, sheathed in armor—has so transgressed what’s expected of her as a woman in 15th-century France, that her gender is an afterthought. “Ah, you are a bit of a woman after all,” he exclaims.
The scene nicely encapsulates what is confounding and compelling about this new production. On the one hand, there’s the sheer oddity of the play, which feels like it’s poised somewhat unsteadily between two eras. Premiering in 1923, three years after the canonization of Joan of Arc, and five centuries after Joan was burned at the stake, it is concerned with both then-recent and relatively ancient history. The language mixes “dost” and “thou” with 20th-century cadence and idioms. The play’s sense of humor—and for a production about a zealous heretic turned saint, it has more laughs than you’d expect—is modern, closer to sitcoms than to Shakespeare. It’s not a play you can spoil exactly (non-alert: she dies), but a surprising scene at the end hews closer to some kind of surrealist fantasy than some kind of swashbuckling, sword-laden conclusion.
But within all this temporal weirdness, there’s an undeniably compelling core. Saint Joan is a play about a society on the brink of transformation (literacy and nationalism are spreading). It is a play about religion, what we deem personal faith versus insanity or spiritual corruption. But it is, especially in this production, a play about gender. When Joan first appears, she is wearing a plain but distinctive dress; as she gains prominence and followers, her attire becomes heavier—chain mail sleeves, breastplates—and more masculine. When one phase of her battles are over, and it seems she’s about to return to her village, someone warns her that she will “find the petticoats tripping her up after leaving them off so long.”
This nagging sense that she’s stepped outside her realm, in attire and in action, simmers alongside the other anxieties she provokes: She has an uncanny way of worming her way before unlikely and elite audiences; she raises the rabble; she disturbs men’s judgment; she’s been swayed by the devil. As large as those charges loom, in the end, it feels as though the betrayal of her gender is the seed of all her ostensible evil. The first half of the play roughly follows her ascent; the second, her downfall, and in that second half it becomes clear just how much she’s disturbed the peace. “Mark what I say: The woman who quarrels with her clothes, and puts on the dress of man, is like the man who throws off his fur gown and dresses like John the Baptist—they are followed, as surely as the night follows the day, by bands of wild women and men who refuse to wear any clothes at all,” says Joan’s inquisitor, during her final reckoning. “When maids will neither marry nor take regular vows, and men reject marriage and exalt their lusts into divine inspirations, then, as surely as the summer follows the spring, they begin with polygamy, and end by incest.”
Up against this confining, small-c conservative attitude, Joan can seem a kind of hero. And Rashad’s Joan, glowing, ebullient, and with unlikely shades of heartwarming goofiness about her, is an easy heroine to champion. Without Rashad, in fact, it’s difficult to imagine this odd play hanging together. There were times, during some of her more impassioned speeches, when I thought the audience was about to toss out a “you go, girl!” whoop, as unlikely as that seemed during a heretic’s last stand. Often the only woman onstage, sparring with or defending herself against circles of doubting or condemning men, her sprightliness can be downright inspirational—a proto-#MeToo maven for any woman who’s ever faced down a roomful of riled-up, overly righteous men. Sure, she was advocating war in the name of religion, but Rashad’s Joan makes the case that sometimes, to be taken seriously, you need to dress like the men.