Howard Brenton’s play Lawrence After Arabia, seen at Hampstead Theatre last year, was set during a period in the 1920s when TE Lawrence was a house guest of his friend George Bernard Shaw, who was preoccupied with writing Saint Joan. It is plain to see how Shaw found similarities between the Maid of Orleans, the 15th Century peasant girl who led an army against an occupying power, and Lawrence. It is also plain to see how the playwright linked Joan’s story to events of the early 20th Century. The first half of Shaw’s work, as seen here, plays like a satire of international politics and diplomacy that is timeless, so much so that director Josie Rourke’s approach of bringing the play bang up to date seems almost like overstating the obvious. Television screens show Bloomberg News and BBC2’s Newsnight and the cast (with one obvious exception) is all male, dressed in natty suits as if commodity traders. The exception, in the form of Gemma Arterton, looks rather anachronous in a full-length red gown and, later, battle dress.
Shaw is out to show how the establishment, in this case church, state and crown, inevitably conspires to overpower the outsider, but Rourke’s production is cold, her relentless and unnecessary quest for modernity robbing the play of its essential passion. Arterton is given little chance to delve into the central character, who comes across as little more than a religious crank. Competence abounds throughout, but what this Saint Joan needs is, dare I say, more fire.
Performance date: 6 January 2017