The first George Bernard Shaw revival at the National Theatre in 13 years, Saint Joan opened last night (11 July, previews started 5 July) in the NT Olivier as part of this year’s £10 Travelex Season. Marianne Elliott’s production continues in rep over the summer until 4 September.

The 1923 play tells the story of the 19-year-old French girl who, following supposedly divine visions, led the French army to a number of significant victories in the Hundred Years’ War, before being burnt at the stake in Rouen for heresy in 1431. Shaw examines the extraordinary series of events surrounding one of history’s most compelling figures, who was made a Catholic saint nearly 500 years later in 1920.

In the title role, Anne-Marie Duff follows in the footsteps of many other famous Joans including Sybil Thorndike (for whom the role was created), Uta Hagen, Joan Plowright and Judi Dench. Also in the NT cast are Oliver Ford Davies, Paterson Joseph, Angus Wright, Christopher Colquhoun and Paul Ready. The production is designed by Rae Smith, with lighting by Paule Constable, sound by Paul Arditti, choreography by Hofesh Schechter and music composed by Jocelyn Pook.

First night critics were all in agreement over the merits of Duff’s central performance, calling it “outstanding”, “superb” and “bewitching”. The consensus was also uniformly positive over the robustness of Shaw’s play, and Elliott’s “intelligent” and “exciting” production, with its physical and Brechtian touches winning over a few doubters. There was praise too for the supporting players. And, while a few questions were raised about the length of the piece (over three hours), especially the epilogue, this did not detract from a production which, to most, excellently demonstrates “the dangers and intolerances of religious fundamentalism”.

  • Michael Coveney on (four stars) – “Great bore or great masterpiece? The jury has been out on this one for decades, but Marianne Elliott’s exciting revival of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan suggests something more troubling than either assertion: that Joan’s campaign of military action is the work of a fanatic driven by mysterious voices… Elliott and designer Rae Smith take a ‘physical theatre’ risk with a premonition of the sacrificial pyre right at the start. There is no smoke without choir, and the musicians are vocalising disaster (Jocelyn Pook’s score has an eerie, Celtic flavour of chants and bells) as actors unpick a pile of chairs in slow motion… The siege of Orleans is raised with the most tremendous banging on iron ramps, led by a palpably transported heroine careless of her own life, and the main platform ascends on a hydraulic pole to reveal bodies splayed like squashed flies. Throughout, Anne-Marie Duff gives a literally bewitching performance as the teenage tearaway, a bride of Christ with a frightening self-confidence and a laser-like intelligence… She avoids piety altogether, and doesn’t reserve her bountiful humanity only for her affectionate scenes with Paul Ready’s Dauphin, a stuttering incompetent rather than the usual dumb milksop… Things get a bit bogged down with Oliver Ford Davies maundering drably on as the Inquisitor, but certain scenes have an edge and brightness even seasoned Joan-ites might have forgotten. The greatest of these is the meeting of de Stogumber (Michael Thomas), Warwick (Angus Wright) and Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais (Paterson Joseph), warning of the dangers when every girl becomes a Joan or a Mahomet, and religious and cultural differences lead to ‘a welter of war’.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Marianne Elliott's production should put to rest the notion that Shaw was simply a didactic old windbag. Even if it occasionally lapses into self-conscious theatricality, it is intellectually vigorous, visually exciting and boasts a glowing performance from Anne-Marie Duff … Occasionally, in its attempts to give the play extra urgency, Elliott's production lapses into the kind of spectacle Shaw deliberately avoided … But the virtue of Elliott's production is that it boldly expresses the idea at the heart of Shaw's play: that Joan's championship of the individual conscience was a threat both to the established church and feudal power … As Angus Wright's silky Warwick pours tea from a silver pot for Paterson Joseph's earnest bishop, you have a sense of the timeless collusion of church and state against any external challenge … Oliver Ford Davies delivers the Inquisitor's great speech about heresy's threat to the social order directly to the audience with a calm, rational persuasiveness. On the other side of the equation, Anne-Marie Duff's Joan offers a superb mixture of assurance and vulnerability … Duff's great gift is to convey Joan's humanity …In the trial scene the belief that she has been deserted by her voices produces a series of heart-wrenching wails. In the truncated epilogue, Duff also cuts a figure of startling solitude as her guilt-ridden contemporaries, including Paul Ready's wonderfully fey Dauphin, flee in terror at the thought of her return. This seems to me a sure sign that Elliott has got Shaw's play exactly right: that now, as then, Joan's brand of reckless individualism presents a threat to social order.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “I’m not sure that fierce chair-biffing is the best way to evoke a battle that Shaw anyway didn’t ask to occur on stage or that the gluing of medieval breastplates to contemporary vests is a particularly subtle way of signalling that 15th-century events have something to teach us now. Yet Elliott’s production has the pace, energy and articulacy that the play needs. And in Anne-Marie Duff it has a striking heroine ... One could almost as soon imagine Tinkerbell storming forts at Orléans. Yet Duff has the qualities that matter … When Duff speaks in her Ulster-like accent of God or the saintly voices that impel her, something rapt, intense and (yes) spiritual overwhelms that pale, pinched face. More than any Joan I’ve seen, she’s what James Hayes’ sadly cynical old archbishop tells her: ‘In love with religion.’ Maybe she’s less effective when it’s time for her to display hubris and imperious vanity; but at the trial scene her built-in vulnerability becomes a plus. Once again she’s the village girl who can’t comprehend the cant of the black-clad men who surround that platform, hemming her in with priestly testosterone. She’s ashen, terrified, distraught, broken enough to let her head fall on to the monk who is helping her to sign her confession … All I can say is that Duff’s performance moved me, though not so much as to lessen the play’s intellectual impact. Thanks also to the collective talents of Angus Wright, Christopher Colquhoun, Paul Ready as a comically feeble Dauphin and Oliver Ford Davies as an incongruously considerate Inquisitor, you can’t miss Shaw’s arguments.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “I wasn’t looking forward to Saint Joan, long and garrulous even by Shaw’s punishing standards … Yet in Marianne Elliott’s superb production the play proves entertaining, touching and provocatively topical … Joan is waging her own jihad, and the play draws explicit parallels between her and ‘Mahomet, the Antichrist’ … If there were ever a play for our times, it is surely this one. Elliott… stages it in a style that owes more to Brecht than Shaw. Many of the costumes are modern with just a few medieval trappings, actors watch scenes in which they aren’t directly involved, there are sequences of ritualised movement and the house lights come up on the audience during the great trial scene… This kind of ‘epic theatre’ stuff usually bores me rigid, but there is an intelligence and rigour about Elliot’s production that somehow makes stale theatrical buns seem fresh. You find yourself hanging on to every word of the arguments … but the play also touches the heart. This is largely thanks to Anne-Marie Duff’s outstanding performance as Joan. A tiny female figure in a world full of big bullying men, she brings a glowing ardour to the stage that never curdles into sentimentality. There is a life, vitality and certainty in this performance that persuades you why so many were prepared to follow Joan – a genuine sense of the saintly. But Duff reaches the heights in the great trial scene… It is deeply moving and a rebuke to those, like me, who have often felt that Shaw is all head and no heart. Among the supporting cast, Oliver Ford Davies as the Inquisitor and Paterson Joseph as Bishop Cauchon make Catholic theology genuinely thrilling, Angus Wright is silkily suave as the Earl of Warwick, an archetypically devious Englishman abroad, while Paul Ready makes a hilariously camp Dauphin.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “The whirligig of time and politics has brought renewed and terrible relevance to Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. No 20th-century British play better demonstrates the dangers and intolerances of religious fundamentalism, its abiding threat to liberal ideas of individual freedom … The trial scene, despite the ornamental extravagances of Marianne Elliott's production, marks one of the great, unequal contests in modern theatre. Shaw pits Anne-Marie Duff's flayed, pathetic and heart-rending Joan, insistent on her direct line to God, against an Inquisitorial Catholic Church, for whom Oliver Ford Davies' frostily grand but over-rhetorical Inquisitor intones the rules of uniformity … She dies for her religious individualism and in a brilliant stroke of theatrical invention Elliott makes the crucial point that religious intolerance remains alive and well today… Duff, whose Joan scales the risky heights of pathos and vaults her to the forefront of her acting generation, makes this battle of religious wills fascinating. Slight of physique, androgynous, and Irish accented, she conveys Joan's fatal combination of intensity and ardour, assurance and vulnerability … The production itself, though, in Elliott's ponderous, mainly modern-dress and silver coffee pots rendition, irritatingly harks back to Sixties experimental theatre … The performers remain a distracting presence with their fussy chair arrangements, never more so than in Elliott's bathetic interpolation of an immolation scene. Joan is strapped at the top of a pile of chairs, there to burn, to soulful musical lament. Yet the play itself stokes up a genuine theatrical blaze.”

    - by Stuart Denison