She was improbable to her contemporaries 600 years ago, and she remains just as improbable, now. Joan of Arc bent France’s king, nobility, army and church to her will (turning the tide of the 100 Years War with England), all as a low-born, teenaged girl claiming to be an agent of the Almighty, and in the ultimate patriarchal, hierarchical, ecclesiastical, warrior society.
The sheer implausibility of Joan’s short life – she was burned at 19 – is not lost on Sarah Snook, who plays the title role in Sydney Theatre Company’s new production George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan. Snook, active across theatre, television and film (the latter including The Dressmaker and Predestination), says she has enjoyed “discovering who this person is – the sort of anomaly that she is”. She also admires Joan’s capacity to turn perceived handicaps into strengths.
The production, directed by Imara Savage, highlights the gender facet of the story. “If this was a young boy, he wouldn’t have been able to achieve the things that she did in the way that she did,” says Snook. “People were so confounded by her that they had no other choice but to believe in her.”
Believing in her, circa 1429, meant believing that she heard the voices of St Margaret, St Catherine and St Michael relaying the will of God – challenging stuff for a renowned sceptic like Shaw to build into his protagonist’s reality.
“I think he manages to balance it,” says Snook. “He allows the possibility of a divine presence, but at the same time, [in his lengthy preface] he talks about how it’s the outcome that we should look to. He talks about Newton having the apple fall on his head and discovering gravity, and, had he discovered it in another more bizarre way, it wouldn’t change the outcome of having discovered gravity. Joan managed to change the course of the 100 Years War. That she did it through hearing voices shouldn’t change that actuality.”
Debate about Joan’s voices has ranged from labelling her a saint to a schizophrenic. Snook simply accepts that she heard them. “I think it’s not necessarily useful to analyse why she heard them or how she heard them,” she says. “I think her voices came to her as another sense. You can’t question some else’s sense of touch, sight, or smell. That is theirs alone, and you can never really experience someone else’s version of life. So looking at it through a lens of whether she’s schizophrenic I don’t think is helpful in the playing of it.”
The paradoxical Joan was also unwaveringly practical, both in history and in the play’s very Shavian depiction of a 1920s teenaged female. “I want to find what that teenaged quality is in 2018,” says Snook, pointing out that every generation, including Shaw’s, has remade Joan in its own image to try to explain away her improbability. “We’re doing the same thing: we’re looking back and seeing what it was to be a teenager at that point, and how that translates into what it is to be a teenager now.”
As well as being a proto-feminist and proto-Protestant, Joan was a proto-nationalist who trumpeted that God was on her side, who was relentlessly self-righteous and who bullied people into enacting her will. So what does Snook ultimately make of her as a character?
“It’s an interesting conundrum,” she responds, “because I do like her, but I don’t know if I would be friends with her. She was very polarising. She’s not an easy person to get along with, and to be around her every day would be exhausting. I think that was part of her downfall: she was just too much.
“What is tragic about her downfall that she doesn’t quite understand why she’s being vilified for what she is. Because her relationship with God is, as she sees it, honest, true and pure, how could the church be against her? All her self-righteousness and overweening pride is for a purpose: it’s for God and the safety of her country. She just thinks that it’s up to her to save the world!”
St Joan: Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 5-30.