Joan, Again

Old Fitzroy Theatre, August 7 

Joan res
Sylvia Keays as Joan. Photo: Daniela Giorgi.

Were Joan of Arc – surely among humanity’s most extraordinary specimens –  alive today she would be diagnosed as schizophrenic and heavily medicated. The many wonders she wrought and her terrible end at the stake (all while still in her teens) are clouded in many minds by whether her devine voices were real. That they were real to her is all that matters.

Paul Gilchrist as written and directed a play for Subtlenuance Theatre about a fictional character who claims to be Joan, a decade after her namesake’s death. History actually provided Gilchrist with such women had he wanted to use them, including one who managed to fool Joan’s own brothers.

But Gilchrist had his own story to tell concerning identity, myth, gullibility and misplaced faith. An ambitious and wordy play (with nine roles of almost equal prominence), it still requires clarifying of its ideas and paring back of its dialogue. An appealing wit is at work, especially when Gilchrist undercuts one character’s pretensions with another’s reference to the mundane, domestic or simply vulgar. Some laughs are laboured, however, or come from the playwright’s mouth rather than the character’s.

Easily fixed is his tendency to reprise information, as if assuming his audience is as slow-witted as TV watchers coping with ad breaks. More challenging may be revamping the speeches where a character is elevated towards rapture, and the writing aspires towards a just-out-of-reach poeticism laden with alliteration.

His story is also undermined by this Joan (Sylvia Keays) being so far removed from the prototypical model that the likelihood she could dupe the rest of the characters, however briefly and however desirous some are to be duped, stretches credulity.

A bigger obstacle lies with the acting. Surfaces are barely scratched where much deeper truths need to be mined within Rachel Scane’s rustic setting. Acquitting themselves best are Lynden Jones (Cardinal Theobald) and Helen Tonkin (Isabelle). Alas the bar, unlike the volume when voices are raised, is not set very high.

Until August 23.