Playing Joan: Actresses on the Challenge of Shaw's Saint Joan is published by Theatre Communications Group, Inc., the national organization for the nonprofit professional theatre, 355 Lexington Ave., NY, NY 10017.As you might have guessed from the title of this publication, the entire published work features twenty-six interviews. What follows is the interview given by Judi Dench:
Judi Dench was born in York, England. She played Joan at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1965.
I believe that at the end of Saint Joan, you should have tremendously mixed feelings about her. The epilogue is usually where the play gets holy and soft. I remember doing the last line very angrily and impatiently. Furious, because they'd been so slow about it. I think that the audience should probably feel ambiguous about her saintliness and her holiness but they should feel it was an extraordinary woman that history threw up at that time, who achieved something very remarkable.
The side of Joan that has always been shown is that she's always right. Because of the saintliness and because of the visions, somehow the right must always be on Joan's side. I don't believe the right is on Joan's side all the time. I think that sometimes she is just doggedly determined and intolerant. Be cause ofthe way she behaved, they did achieve a victory, but that is an incident. Out of the incident it's up to you to make up your mind about her actual saintliness, or her being chosen by God, or her being the only one who was right.
My playing Joan happened really by accident. I had done Ophelia opposite Johnny Neville at the Vic. He was running the brand-new theatre in Nottingham and asked me to go there and play Private Lives, The Country Wife and Saint Joan. I never had Joan as a goal. I've never had that ambitious thing of wanting to play certain parts at all. I've always waited for somebody to ask me to do something and then felt, "Yes, perhaps, if they think it is a good idea, then I'll have a go at it." The things that I have wanted to do have not been the things that have been successiul, really.
When I was asked to do Joan, I thought, "Yes, I would quite like a go at that." I just believe so strongly that she was a presumptuous, jumped-up girl. Her assumptions are very pretentious indeed; well, not pretentious but they're arrogant: to assume, for instance, that Dunois is not leading the army correctly. And in the end, they just turn against her. In actual fact, during the trial, they have a very, very good case. She surely can't believe that she's not going to be burned and not going to be imprisoned. She's amazingly naive.
But the arrogance of her. I'm sure I played up the arrogance. and I'm sure that if I were going to play it again -- which I'm sure I shan't -- I would find that more. I think she's an uncomfortable person. Some people who are fighting for the right are not easy to be with. I think people thought she was an arrant nuisance. who must somehow be gotten rid of. There are many pointers to that in the play, but I don't think that's ever been emphasized enough.
The real Joan was interesting and she was a kind of heroine to me. When I was quite young my father and mother took me to Rheims, where I saw her statue. They told me about Joan of Arc, and I bought a little copy of the statue. I had also been to Domremy before I played Joan, and heard the church bell there. Continental bells have a very metallic sound. People go off on that thing of making Joan's bells sound like Great Peter, the bell at York Minster. But I think that it's a much smaller bell. More in character with the person that she is.
I never do research for anything because then I fall out the hole in the middle. I just get so confused -- it's like seeing the play masses of times. You want to take the best of everybody and you want to read, but then you don't do something very instinctive. I'm only an instinctive person, really. I do try to work things out, but I only act on instinct. It's probably very arrogant of me to say that.
I just thought that I'm probably built quite like St. Joan anyway, because I'm amazingly strong and small. I don't know whether she was small, but I thought about that and hoped that it informed the performance enough. I also trained as a designer, so I developed a very clear picture in my mind of what she should look like. I was very, very relieved when I heard Sir Lawrence say that he does that. I have to kind of design it in my mind first. Also I had my hair chopped very, very roughly.
Patrick Robertson did the costumes, and they were very workmanlike. They looked like people had worn them. My armor was made by the same person who made Joanie Plowright's, and it looked battered about. If I were to do it again now, would want that even more. I would want her to wear an armor made up from something like bits of old metal tied on. It's playing against that thing of being very shining and precise. It was a very black, very simple set -- the same set that we did Measure for Measure on. We never brought the curtain down. It was very, very stark, and that was a wonderful help.
I played her with a Yorkshire accent, which is where I come from. It's quite soft and flat, and then when Yorkshire people get heated, it's a very strange sound and not so soft. ]t worries me a bit actually, accents. There's no way that Joan could come on speaking in a standard English accent, because she doesn't speak like anybody else. So what do you do? I don't know what the answer is.
The Yorkshire accent I played her in is very brusk, very much to the point. I'm not saying that Yorkshire people are intolerant, but the way I played her didn't leave much room for tolerance. She understood with a kind of Mother Earth, basic animal intuition what people were saying, but I think it is ignorance that makes part of her mind so shut off. Not willing to see other people's point of view, and calling a spade a spade. Maybe that's also something to do with her youth. I remember that being the thread all the way through. And certainly not playing, in any way, the saint. I was very, very matter-of-fact about saying, "I'll ask Saint Catherine. She'll send a west wind." Total assurance that she is on the level of the saints. It must have been intolerable for them.
When she hears the bells and thinks that her voices are speaking to her, it was as matter-of-fact as saying, "We have thirty head of cows. I cut out a lot of lyricism in the play.
I think I made the "I am alone" speech insufferable. I remember taking off any soft corners, so I don't know whether the production made people cry. I don't think I played any of it in an acceptable lyric, compassionate way. l think I played it with a tremendous stubbornness and a dogged determination. I was sure that black was black and white was white, and I never let up on that. I only pursued material, total belief.
Under that canopy also came the saints and my belief that God had sent me. I don't believe that she was a tolerant person, and I didn't allow for any tolerance. In a way, it's like Juliet behaving so badly sometimes. She behaves terribly irrationally and hysterically. It's the intolerance of youth. I hope I wasn't monotonous.
When we did Romeo and Juliet for Zeffirelli in 1961, we strove to make them children. Franco was interested in the fact that they were children. Up until we did the play, productions were about these very romantic, very poetical, beautiful, lyric lovers. There's more antagonism in it than that, and that's what I worked for in Juliet and in ]oan -- that kind of intolerance of youth, of simply lying on the ground with your hands over your ears and saying "Don't!" That dogged determination and stubbornness is also what can go out and win battles
. A lot that happens to St. Joan is, I think, luck. That may be a heinous thing to say, but in actual fact it is luck and drive. She was a catalyst, and that is as important as that maybe she was a saint. Too many Joans make up their minds that she's a saint from the moment she walks in. I don't think she is; I think she's a rebel. People who are rebels are often people who are saints.
What I remember about the performance, strangely enough, is that when the trial came I was always immensely relieved. It was the work done before the trial that I found difficult and more of a challenge, to make her that much of a catalyst.
I think the Dunois scene was the hardest. It is fiendishly difficult to do. Shaw makes Dunois such a charming hero. It is a very lyric scene too, in a way, but when they come on, it should be very prickly and difficult. It is actually a does-the-work scene which precipitates the play forward. We discussed that a lot. Suddenly Dunois sees more in her than a woman because she has that marvelous speech about "I do not care for the things women care for." He begins to accept her when she says, "You think you can win battles with a great noise and smoke. You must have guns, and much bigger guns too." I don't think he accepts her fully until the wind changes at the end, when he comes to total belief She sees, too, that they are compatible in a way they shouldn't be when they come on.
Jimmy Thompson was Dunois. He was actually there for Lucio in Measure for Measure, and he wasn't the kind of person that people would have imagined as Dunois. Simply because of that it was unexpected and different. Ronnie Hines played Warwick. It was a marvelous performance -- very. very solid and again, a kind of man who gave the impression that you couldn't move him. The more the people stand firm in the play, the bigger the battle.
We did a joke. This is a terrible, terrible story. Harold Innocent played the Inquisitor. You may know Harold's work from the National Theatre. A big man. Likes his voice a lot. We suspected he was listening to it a bit, and about two days before we opened, the company got together and asked John Neville to call a dress rehearsal of the trial.
We ran up to the Inquisitor's speech. where Harold always started getting slower and slower. About three lines into the speech. Job Stewart, who was playing De Stogumber. I believe, took from under-neath his cassock a very small flask and a couple of cups and poured out some hot coffee and passed it along. Then Ronnie McGill, who was playing the Bishop of Beauvais, got from underneath his costume an enormous piece of purple knitting and started to knit. I just remember hearing a thud -- it was Juhn falling on the ground he laughed so much. Harold was frightfully cross, frightfully cross, and then we all laughed and apologized. and he was wonderful about it and has told the story often. And he did do the speech marvelously well.
I never had any trouble with Joan's intelligence. Indeed she was intelligent. I remember my husband and I being at dinner with a great friend of ours, Joseph McCullough, who is director of St. Mary Le Beau. At this dinner were the Rev. Tom Carlinsky, who is a Jesuit, and Edward Carpenter, Dean of Westminster. They had a theological discussion, of which Michael and I understood I suppose less than a third.
Now sometimes very, very clever or very sophisticated people speak in a language which is not direct or straightforward. I believe that somebody of as much intelligence as Joan, or maybe even more, could go into, say an Oxford college and be baffled by what people talk about. In the trial it's sometimes like lateral thinking. I think that there's a genuine country person in the middle of the room with the princes of the Church, who actually does not understand what they say and just pursues her own belief and her own assurance.
I remember thinking that I hoped what I did made her more accessible. We know she was a remarkable person but playing a unique, remarkable, saintlike person on the stage may leave very little that people can identify with. If you can make her more accessible -- if people can understand more about her even through anger or through thinking "what an appalling way to behave" -- then somehow, through all those things, the saintlike qualities should he there anyway.
Strangely enough, Joan is not a part I feel that I've put behind me. I feel I've done groundwork on something as when I played Lady Macbeth with John Neville in West Africa in 1963, and it was the most wonderful groundwork for when I played it with Ian McKellen for Trevor Nunn. I do feel very much that Shaw is like that. You can have so many shots at something and never get tired of actually playing and perfecting and getting something nearer.
I suppose Joan is like Juliet, in that they say when you're Juliet's age you're not old enough to play her, and when you're old enough to play Juliet, you're too old. Saint Joan is technically a very dimcult play for an actress. If we are going to get somebody of nineteen or twenty, she has to be very, very proficient because you have to have the most incredible energy and driving force to play Joan. That perhaps is the biggest thing you have to get over because, when you get to the trial, in a way you've done your physical work and then have the mental work to do. There's a tremendous relief when they say, "Take her to the fire," and you think, "oh, thank goodness." The physical and mental resources called on are very considerable For a girl or a woman.
Thanks to Gail Lynch for sending me this article.