Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Maids and Marshmallows (or not, actually)

I must admit I was apprehensive going in. The National’s website stated a provisional running time of three hours and five minutes, and due to a minor brain hiccup while booking tickets I’d managed to land myself in the second row from the back of the Olivier circle.

There to see Marianne Elliott’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, I was anticipating a long fidgety evening squinting at the tops of people’s heads. But while my precarious perch did necessitate a degree of squinting, my somewhat negative expectations were pleasantly overturned and, despite the lengthy running time, I was completely engrossed.

Last time I saw Anne-Marie Duff, in the tedious The Soldier’s Fortune at the Young Vic, I was pretty underwhelmed; she looked lost and ill at ease in what was a messy and dull production. But here she was captivating and commanding, so full of passion and energy you quite understood why these soldiers would follow a young girl into battle. Elliott’s spare staging was also striking, drawing out both the humour and the drama of Shaw’s play.

The evening did have a few shaky moments. The opening sequence, which consisted of some slow motion fiddling with chairs to a soundtrack of what sounded like Enya played backwards, had me worried, I’ll admit (and absolutely certain that those chairs would be called into play for the climactic burning sequence, as indeed they were). A stylised battle scene, with a lot of percussive banging and stamping, also resembled something that would not have looked out of place in Stomp.

But most of these wibbles were quickly remedied by the confident staging and strong performances, including an appearance from the wonderful Paterson Joseph (the super-cool Johnson in Peep Show and the man who single-handedly saved Trevor Nunn’s irritating production of The Royal Hunt Of The Sun from its 1970s-style theatrical excesses)

On the interval I caught up with Andrew and Phil, the West End Whingers. They had also been fretting about the three hours plus running time, and were, like me, won over by the production. Indeed, we were so short of things to moan about over our interval drinks, we had to resort to whinging about the Royal Festival Hall refit. They even remembered that I was a gin girl, which perked me up further.

After the interval, and an incredibly tense and gripping trial sequence, the chairs did make a return for the burning, and though the National's smoke machine got a good work out, no actual actresses were harmed. A good thing for Anne Marie Duff, but a let down for the Whingers who were hoping to toast a few marshamllows.


Statler said...

Pleased this seems to be winning people round but I'm surprised by all the advance negativity. Is this simply due to the running time or is the perception of Shaw the issue? I'm fond of a few of his plays but "Saint Joan" is way ahead of the rest - witty and sharp with a clever final conceit.

It's productions like "Saint Joan" and "Elling" that really make me regret how far away London is from Glasgow...

Interval Drinks said...

Combination of the running time and having seen a few ropey Shaw productions in the past. It was very well done though, striking and powerful and I finally 'get' Anne-Marie Duff now; she was great.

Sean said...

Yes, I don't know why people are so anti Shaw, I've always loved him. Also a large number of plays are three hours or more, so it's not that unusual!

I too thought the chairs would be used as a bonfire, but it was so nicely done I thought. Was more worried that the chairs would break, the impact of banging them about all the time must be quite tough on them!

I've reviewed it too:


Interval Drinks said...

Thanks for the link Sean, shall have a look now. And, yes, this week has completely turned round the way I feel about Shaw (witness my recent post on Pygmalion).