September 13, 2015, by Peter Kirwan

Shakespeare’s Joan of Arc (Henry VI, Part 1) (American Shakespeare Center) @ the Blackfriars, Staunton VA

NB this review is of a preview performance, and does not reflect the play as of press night

The resident company at the Blackfriars works exceptionally hard. Twelve actors are currently performing four Shakespeare plays in repertory six days of the week; not only that, but the whole company perform for fifteen minutes before the start of the show and all through the interval. The strain on human resource is particularly clear in those plays with large casts; during Joan of Arc, Patrick Midgley playing Exeter at one point had to slip offstage and re-enter as the Mayor, before leaving and sneaking back round to rejoin the same scene as Exeter again. The discipline of this ensemble speaks to their experience and long-term collaboration.

I saw Shakespeare’s Joan of Arc on the second preview, when the company was still bedding into the play, and these kinds of logistical challenge – as well as the extensive fight choreography – will doubtless get more slick over time. What felt more unsure was the sense of exactly what story the company was trying to tell in this production. The title – Joan of Arc – suggested an emphasis on this character, but the relatively uncut text (including, for my first time in a production of this play, the full Sir John Fastolf plotline) proliferated the number of different narratives onstage; and, with no Part 2 or 3 in the repertory, the many sections setting up future plotlines had nowhere to go. In its preview form, this production felt like a mad dash to the finish with lots of fine individual moments but no overall agenda, and I wish I could return to see how it develops.

The wars in France, the storyline that doesn’t feel like a set-up for the later parts of the trilogy, was inevitably central. Artistic Director Jim Warren’s production made constant use of the stage doors, with attacking armies regularly exiting via the side doors and retreating/conquered parties appearing, staggering, through the larger central entrance. At times, the curtains in these entrances were raised to allow more fighting within the tiring house area. Disappointingly, the fights were repetitive, telling the same story of clash-and-retreat with every one; perhaps a necessity given the company’s rehearsal period and small cast, but it made it harder to distinguish patterns or progressions in the imagined physical-political landscape of the play.

What anchored these scenes were the fine performances of James Keegan as Talbot and Abbi Hawk as Joan. Keegan presented Talbot as war-weary, still towering over most of his enemies but treating his battles as a job of work that he found increasingly difficult. Hawk, by contrast, was quick and swaggering, often grasping her sword upside down for faster stabbing and vaunting against her enemies. Both of them, crucially, were human; Joan was regularly disarmed and clawed her way back to victory with her hands; Talbot took a beating even as he generally prevailed. While much of their roles involved running in and out, the battles were centred by their presence and the outcomes realised in their respective demeanours.

Joan’s self-aware mockery of the French (‘turn and turn again’) was apparent through many of her scenes with the sardonic – and amusing – peers of Charles (Chris Johnston), especially as they stumbled out after the surprise night attack on their camp, wearing anachronistically modern underwear and flailing in discomfort while Joan mocked their lack of awareness. The French were not merely comic though, but substantial enemies, and Johnston’s Dauphin in particular held his own in the political scenes, egged on by Allison Glenzer’s astute Alencon. Yet it was in her final scene that Hawk made the most of Joan, first pleading with three suitably creepy black-clad wraiths who appeared from the trapdoor, then rejecting her shepherd father in a usually-cut scene that captured something of her personal sacrifice, then escalating her pleas of nobility, virtue and pregnancy in a desperate plea for life which veered on the side of comedic but which raised the stakes towards the play’s conclusion.

Keegan, meanwhile, also came into his own at the point of his death. The two near-identical scenes with John Talbot (Patrick Earl) were repetitive, but the rhyming back-and-forth between the two finally found a story amid the battle scenes, and the image of the two lying quietly and undiscovered together upstage while the French spoke downstage before finding them was one of the production’s rare, more beautiful moments of quiet. As with the afternoon’s Antony and Cleopatra, the production desperately needed to slow down and let more moments such as these resonate. This was particularly the case for the brief scene featuring Allison Glenzer’s excellent Countess of Auvergne; while the banter between she and Talbot was lively, the appearance of a single extra soldier and the distant sound of a cannon shot hardly had the effect necessary to establish what exactly Talbot was a shadow of.

Of the plethora of other characters, Stephanie Holladay Earl did excellent work with Henry VI. Dwarfed by an enormous throne, Henry deferred easily to his nobles and yet was able to stand by himself, commanding when necessary – an advantage of including the stripping of Fastolf’s garter was the light in which it showed the displeased young king. The boyishness of the King, however, also allowed for the court scenes to descend into anarchy, as when the rival supporters of Gloucester and Winchester began fighting in front of him, their own childish anger making a mockery of Henry’s lack of control.

Plenty of time was given to the inception of the wars of the roses, and the flower-picking scene (using some of the bushes that decorated the theatre) set up the factions well; the difficulty was that the speed and disparity of the scenes dealing with this conflict made it hard to discern a narrative. Mortimer’s appearance with York felt brief and its impact unclear; the conflict between Somerset and York over the troops to help Talbot subsumed under the fast movement of the stage; and the snarking of Rene Thornton Jr’s Humphrey and Gregory Jon Phelps’s Winchester unresolved; this is the play’s fault rather than the production’s, but it does strengthen the case for cutting or interpolation when putting on this play in isolation. By contrast, Patrick Midgley’s Exeter felt unusually prominent, his choric speeches making explicit the ominous sense of bad things to come.

With that said, the best thing about the play was one of these things to come. The meeting between Patrick Earl’s Suffolk and Allison Glenzer’s Margaret was utterly delicious, played as outright comedy as Glenzer waved at the oblivious Suffolk as he monologued to the audience, before petulantly turning to them herself when he finally deigned to speak to her. Underlying the comedy, however, was an expert understanding of the contest of control in this scene; Suffolk’s longwinded explanation to himself of how he planned to manage this situation was completely undercut by Margaret’s privileged perspective on the scene (she can, of course, even hear him delivering soliloquies, a beautiful moment of metatheatrical awareness of this conceit in early modern drama). As he pressed for a kiss, she dictated the terms of their passion, slapping him in friendly fashion after planting a kiss explicitly for him firmly on his lips.

The breakneck pace of this 1 Henry VI risked squandering moments, but the company managed to salvage some fine setpieces from a complex and difficult play. As it settles into the repertory, one hopes that the company will light on the key strands that enhance coherence for the audience and perhaps even consider some cuts. The rewards outweight the disadvantages though, and the sheer energy of the company (who led us in a very fun ‘Born to be wild’ during one of the musical breaks) sold the wars of the roses hard.

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