Josie Rourke's revival of Shaw's 1923 play could not be more different from the last major London production at the National Theatre in 2007. On that occasion director Marianne Elliott, with Ann-Marie Duff in the title role, showed us a dangerous religious fanatic, shackled, tortured and put to death by a kangaroo court against a background of casual violence.
Rourke, following the logic of the small Donmar space, gives us a chamber version of the story in which corporate men sit around a swanky glass boardroom table with Bloomberg screens giving us the latest news on English takeovers of the French economy and the losses of 'Dauphin Holdings'. Tea and coffee are served, while the English ply their French guests with an unwelcome fried breakfast. The flickering screens showing the rising prices of egg futures take their cue from Shaw's opening scene between a French feudal lord and his steward who laments the fact that the hens are no longer laying.
It's an ingenious piece of stage design but it seems to me to trivialise rather than illuminate what the play is about. What we experience get is not a war zone where people are being killed, but a play about men in suits arguing with each other. At times, even though the play, which I saw at the second preview, runs for just two and a half hours rather than the National's three hours, Shaw's relentless wordiness starts to drag; there is only so much stage business you can create with refreshments being served on a revolving table.
When Gemma Arterton appears as the Maid, she is the only one in medieval costume, and the lighting changes to make her appear like a figure from another world. Arterton is a stunningly talented actress and oozes charisma. Her Joan isn't a fanatical extremist, more of a happy-clappy smiling young Christian of the kind that makes one cross the road to avoid the risk of being converted. At times she is even a little flirty, using her hands to press her arguments on the suspicious men she is trying to persuade. It's a thoroughly convincing performance, both medieval and modern, but the decision to dress her differently from the rest of the characters creates a big gulf. Joan is an alien from outer space, a time-traveller who never seems to inhabit the same world as her interlocutors. The modern setting accentuates the hypocrisy and double dealing of the French and English men who put her to death by weakening any sense that they may have real religious beliefs to justify their actions.
In the rest of the cast I particularly liked Fisayo Akinade as a very camp Dauphin, Jo Stone-Fewings as a thoroughly English Duke of Warwick and Elliot Levey as a feline French bishop. Shaw's feminist message is the one that seems to interest Rourke the most, and in Arterton, the Helen Mirren of her generation, she has found a Joan who radiates sympathy and likeability amid a gaggle of beastly men. That's one interpretation of the play, but not the only one, it seems to me. Shaw is saying that if his heroine reappeared today, she would suffer the same fate. But he also seems to suggest in the subtext that this is simply the way the world works, and perhaps we should get over it.