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Photo: David Cooper

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — Critic Kenneth Tynan once observed that Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan was the first work to show the beginnings of the playwright’s senility.

Tynan reveled in this kind of attention-grabbing judgment. But on this occasion, it could also be seen as a diversionary tactic to quell the discomfort Tynan himself might well be feeling over the readiness of Shaw to take a serious look at matters spiritual in this play. And Tynan — like Shaw, a non-believer — ultimately did yield to its strange power. After hammering the play and dismissing Joan of Arc as “a divinely illuminated simpleton,” Tynan went on to confess that he was moved to tears by the conclusion of the performance he was reviewing.

One wonders what Tynan would make of the stunning revival of Saint Joan that has launched the Shaw Festival’s new season. There’s no way it will be dismissed as a dry 15th Century history lesson about an illiterate peasant girl driven by her “voices” to lead the French in victorious battle against the English, only be burned at the stake because of the challenges she presents to established authority.

This is a production of clarity and excitement. It has a first=rate Maid of Orleans in the person of Sara Topham. And the wrenching trial scene, which sees Joan being ground to dust between the twin pillars of church and state, is powerful and heartbreaking. But Tim Carroll, in his first production as the festival’s new artistic director, has more on his mind than mounting a clear, dramatically aware revival of the play that won Bernard Shaw his Nobel Prize in literature. Carroll wants us also to heed the unfathomable mystery at the core of the Joan mythology. And he clearly believes that no production of Saint Joan can succeed without a full acknowledgement of its spiritual dimension.

That dimension is given memorable utterance in the spare but compelling look of this production. There’s that gleaming white cube hovering before our eyes. There’s that strange streak of light descending from the heavens. There’s the darkness of the Festival Theatre stage itself — darkness visible, really — making its own elusive statement both in the gleaming ebony texture of the playing area and in the way it vanishes at the rear to some sort of infinity. Or perhaps it’s eternity that beckons, given that this darkness will start filtering back mirrored images of the human drama being enacted before our eyes.

The visual world of this production is one of its most seductive features. It’s the achievement of Tim Carroll, designer Judith Bowden and lighting wizard Kevin LaMotte to make it a place of mystery and revelation. Doors open in the darkness. The cube rises to reveal — what? The time will come when the sudden image of a young woman awaiting trial and execution has an impact that goes beyond the theatricality of the moment.

The production’s spare, compelling visuals would please Shaw. In their deceptive simplicity, they hearken back to the revolutionary design concepts of Edward Gordon Craig. This is what Shaw originally wanted, and he deplored any tendency to overload the play with elaborate sets. “The scenes in Joan can all be reduced to extreme simplicity,” he told The Theatre Guild’s Lawrence Langner in 1923. “A single pillar of the Gordon Craig type will make the cathedral. All the Loire needs is a horizon . . ..”

This new Shaw Festival production echoes that sensibility. Even Judith Bowden’s costumes have a muted look, apart from the occasional slash of Episcopal purple.

There’s lyricism, even poetry, in this thoughtful production, and there’s nothing forced about it. Carroll also seems intent on drawing out a certain musicality to underscore the mysticism lurking in this play — and it’s powerfully augmented here by excellent liturgical choral contributions under music director and composer Claudio Vena.

Sara Topham is marvelous, giving us a Joan so guileless and trusting and driven by her simple faith that she becomes a threat to the established church and the body politic. That’s the terrible irony of her situation — her destruction by forces she cannot even begin to understand. An actress playing Joan must in no way reveal the slightest ounce of calculation in performance. Joan can be feisty, determined, courageous, stubborn, exasperating — all qualities that emerge in Topham’s characterization. But the real challenge is to ensure credibility for that necessary fusion of child-like spontaneity with her indestructible religious convictions. We may not believe in her voices, but we absolutely must accept Joan’s own belief in them. Topham delivers on this requirement as she does with the complex emotional demands of the trial scene and its shattering betrayal.

There is a sense of high stakes being played out, both political and spiritual. How will the body politic and the Church respond to the apparent heresy of Joan’s claim to have a direct connection to God?

Shaw’s text has been pared down somewhat but its central argument comes through loud and clear in a production that also delivers some unusually acute character studies.

A sardonic Tom McCamus is outstanding as the Earl of Warwick, a key player in the game of power politics triggered by Joan’s victory over the English at the siege of Orleans. There’s something chilling about his matter-of-fact defense of “political necessity” and his almost casual pronouncement that “we must burn the woman.”

Furthermore, play and production give us a Church suffering its own internal stresses over Joan.  We don’t just have the example of Stogumber, that blockhead of a chaplain, the consummate religious fanatic in Karl Ang’s seething performance until he goes into a different kind of meltdown following Joan’s execution. We turn to Jim Mezon’s gripping performance as the Inquisitor and sense the turmoil going through this formidable cleric’s mind. Yes, the classic speech on heresy seizes our attention, but even here, as in The Inquisitor’s direct exchanges with Joan, we glimpse a troubled soul.

There is no shortage of notable performances here — Steven Sutcliffe, haunting as Joan’s executioner; Wade Bogert-O’Brien excellent as an immature French Dauphin whose petulance is unworthy of Joan’s devotion; Gray Powell, a weary warrior as Dunois, her comrade-in-arms; Graeme Somerville, a quietly determined upholder of doctrine as Bishop Cauchon. In brief, this is an exemplary cast.

Following the emotional impact of the trial scene and the unsettling aftermath of Joan’s death at the stake, we get the epilogue to the play. It can sometimes seem a tiresome addendum that in a bad production can leave audience members simply wanting it to end. Indeed, some directors dispense with it. This time it emerges as a witty and elegant coda — a fitting footnote to an outstanding production.

(Saint Joan continues to Oct. 15. Further information at 1 800 511 7429 or