Theo Hobson Theo Hobson

Saint Joan is the perfect religious play for our ignorant era

The chief appeal of Saint Joan, which I saw last night at the Donmar, is that it is a brilliant vehicle for a young actress. Gemma Arterton is great, if a little too mature and attractive to convey teenage innocence.

Otherwise, I don’t quite see the point of George Bernard Shaw’s play, and wonder why it is regularly revived in our time. Does it have anything intelligent to say about religion? It romanticises a medieval mystic who took up arms – which has rather little to do with contemporary Christianity. At one point it suggests that her stubborn individualism is the source of Protestantism, but this is muddled in various ways. It generally implies that she embodies true faith, which is at odds with the worldly authorities, but this is incoherent, as true Christian faith is not militaristic.

I think it partly appeals to secular people because it collapses the difference between Christianity and Islam. She is basically a jihadi. At one point this is underlined: one character likens her to Muhammed. So the average liberal is confirmed in their view that all religions are the same; they may have attractive, charismatic, romantic aspects (they may be romantic as well as wrong), but dangerous violence is their essence. This is a message that flatters rather than challenges the playgoer. 

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