Review: Joan, Again (Subtlenuance / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Aug 5 – 23, 2014
Playwright: Paul Gilchrist
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Kit Bennett, Jamie Collette, Ted Crosby, Kitty Hopwood, Lynden Jones, Sylvia Keays, Bonnie Kellett, David Kirkham, Helen Tonkin
Images by Katy Green Loughrey, Liam O’Keefe, Daniela Giorgi

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
Paul Gilchrist’s new script is deeply philosophical. It asks many big questions, all of which affects our lives, but most do not come easily into daily discourse. These are themes that can be difficult to communicate, for despite their universality, the diversity in beliefs often means that unexpected conflict may result. Also, these concepts of truth, religion, spirituality, death, identity, gender, kinship, time, and so forth, are constantly shifting and elusive, and therefore impossible to resolve. Conversation without resolution or agreement is always a challenge in polite society, which means that many of these piquant parts of life are left to the likes of academics and artists to explore at depth. Indeed, it is a responsibility of art to think about these matters, and to present to us, perspectives that may challenge our own.

Through the landscape of war, and the appearance of a woman claiming to be Joan of Arc ten years after her famed execution, Gilchrist’s play asks political, social and personal questions and unpacks modern day attitudes about, well, everything. The script is always loaded with meaning, and while it might be difficult to discover the author’s own beliefs in every line, we are consistently provoked to react with our own judgment and ideology. Not much happens in the story, but our intellect is exhausted by its end. The strength of the writing is in its ability to expose the incoherence and injustices of our world, without obvious agenda or tiresome pontification. Gilchrist’s work has many delightfully sharp lines that need to be revisited if only to commit to memory, but more significantly, it is concentrated with analysis and poignancy that speak volumes of truth that its characters struggle to navigate.

Gilchrist’s direction creates a dynamic theatre with distinct and colourful personalities that keep us fascinated. Moments of comedy and drama are executed with precision, so that the show varies regularly in tone, and is kept at a comfortable pace. Acting as both playwright and director allows a very specific interpretation of the text, but it also raises issues for performance. There is a lack of organic energy in the piece, and chemistry between players is laboured. The cast does not always find a mode of articulation that feels genuine. When interpretations are reproduced from preconceived ideas instead of more fundamental and experiential processes, characters are less unconvincing and their stories can become difficult to decipher. Gilchrist’s direction also needs to have greater confidence and commitment in his comedy that is too often underplayed, which is a shame as there is potential for much bigger laughs in his writing. By the same token, the profundity of his script needs greater emphasis as they can be quite elaborate. A writer mulls over their work over long periods, and to condense that vision into two or three hours for an audience that arrives with only a blank slate, requires a very fresh pair of eyes. Gilchrist expresses himself marvelously but one wonders if an intermediary would provide more effective elucidation.

Kit Bennett plays Therese, a young woman of very few words who suffers from the indignity of being tagged the “village idiot”. Her performance is remembered for a level of authenticity that her colleagues do not manage. Bennett encourages intrigue and empathy, forming a connection with the audience that is strangely persistent. She speaks little but her presence is always strong and her reactions meticulous. One wonders if it is the lack of lines that provides her the freedom to create something that is more personal and with more truth as an actor. Gilchrist has crafted a brilliantly complex role with Therese. She is surprising, almost disarmingly so, but her contradictions actually feel very realistic.

Joan is central to much of the narrative, and Sylvia Keays brings to it an ambiguous zen-like quality that works interestingly on levels of narrative and philosophy but we are left craving for a deeper understanding of her character’s psychology and motivations. Keays is at her most compelling when soliloquising, showing an excellent affiliation with the writing and themes. There is a defiance that seems slightly mild but her lack of aggression makes for a more textured and unanticipated experience of the character. Also charming is Lynden Jones whose subtle yet biting portrayal of Cardinal Theobald grabs our attention at every appearance. The irony in his lines could be performed more extravagantly but the creepy hypocrisy that seeps through Jones’ every pore is sickeningly irresistible.

Helen Tonkin as Isabelle, delivers a memorable and moving speech about lives lost at war. The play’s antiwar sentiment is strong. It discusses the damage worn by societies as a result of combat, and the meanings we derive from manufacturing war heroes. In honouring the dead and those who return victorious, we face the inevitably of assigning glory to destruction, but responding with an antithetical passivity and apathy is unwise. The pursuit of peace may be the greatest vocation of humankind, and the quest for it may never appear within easy reach, but there simply is no responsibility more noble, and no undertaking more necessary than the attainment of justice and fairness for all.

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