Friday, January 23, 2015

'The Lark' at The Rose Playhouse, 22nd January 2015

As much archaeological dig as theatre, The Rose Playhouse isn't the cosiest space to spend a January night. Nestled underneath a skyscraper, it's unheated and cavernous, the air rapidly chilling to a couple of degrees above zero. I'm wearing a few extra layers and swaddled in a blanket, but the cold still creeps its way in. The ghastly thought strikes me that being stuck atop a burning bonfire might not be so bad after all.

I'm here for Defiant Reality Theatre's production of Jean Anouilh's The Lark; a play about the trial, condemnation and execution of Joan of Arc (Maud Madlyn). Captured by the English and considered a political hot potato, the authorities want her out of the way; trying her on charges of heresy (and cross-dressing).Eager to prove she's either mad or lying they quiz her on complex ecclesiastical philosophy and ask her to recount how she rose from an illiterate peasant to leading France's armies.

In flashback we see the young Joan experiencing terrifying visions of the Archangel Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret instructing her to support Charles VII (Tristan Hyde) and save France from English tyranny. This is a big ask for a teenage girl, especially coming straight from God. Nonetheless she miraculously succeeds, and through flashback we watch her transformation into a symbol of religious adoration and example of military ingenuity.

Cackling from the sidelines are her judges and captors. Leading them is the Earl of Warwick (George Collie), portrayed here as a basically decent (if slightly dim) man tasked with an unpleasant job. He's played here with a slightly Alan Partridge bumbling quality, making cringeworthy comments to Joan and seeking the politest way out of any situation. More sinister are her inquisitors (Samuel Heagney, Pip Gladwin and Lawrence Toye). These vulturelike, black-cloaked presences surround Joan, peppering her with questions laced with condescension and mockery.

The the story of Joan of Arc isn't exactly sunshine and roses, so it's surprising that The Lark so damn funny. Though Madlyn's Joan is never anything less than a paragon of sincerity and righteousness, every other character is a grotesquely overwrought caricature. Paradoxically this makes the heaven-struck visionary the only sane person around. Rather than a fierce, violent warrior this Joan's best weapon is her brain; manipulating the dozy men around her with appeals to their vanity and using their low opinion of her as a woman (and as a peasant) to her advantage.

Maud Madlyn as Joan
The best examples come in two brilliantly comedic scenes. The first where Joan convinces the incredulous Robert de Baudricourt (Pip Gladwin) to grant her armour, horses and a retinue of men-at-arms to accompany her to see the Dauphin. North plays a great preposterously pompous ass, harrumphing and bumbling around the stage like he's stepped out of a pantomime.  The second features the awkward, incompetent Dauphin. In him Tristan Hyde appears to be channelling the late Rik Mayall, showing us a deeply stupid individual whose ego is gradually inflated by Joan. He's a quintessential coward here, Joan harnessing that fear to get what she wants.

The tone reminded me of CBBC's excellent Horrible Histories; both shows determined to blow away the stuffy cobwebs of academia and, through comedy, make the past something we can empathise and emotionally engage with. The Lark generally succeeds at pinning this tone down, largely courtesy of the wonderful performances of George Collie and Tristan Hyde. Of the cast, these two truly grasp the twin requirements of being both comedic and serious at once. 

Not every member of the cast navigates this territory successfully. In particular Lawrence Toye spends most of his time on stage furiously mugging, constantly contorting his face in an exaggerated manner that only succeeds in distracting from everything else on stage. It's perhaps unfair to criticise given that the entire male cast does a lot of face-pulling, but this could really be toned down a bit and still be effective.

But the centrepiece is undoubtedly Madlyn's Joan. She's a rock of faith in a mire of corruption and preening vanity. Madlyn pitches her between mania and terror, giving her the wide-eyed glistening gaze of the pious. Crucially, while utterly convinced of the truth of her visions, she's riddled with doubt and fear. In a feminist twist, this Joan is ultimately concerned with maintaining her chosen identity in the face of men who'd reduce her to a mere baby-making, sock-mending machine.  She turns the final moments of the play, where Joan realises that she can face either a horrific death as the legendary Joan of Arc or a lifetime of purgatory as a quiet, ignored pet, into a unexpected triumph. Madlyn plays making the decision to be burnt alive perfectly, making it not only understandable but the obviously correct choice.

Maud Madlyn is no Maria Falconetti, but I've seen a lot of Joans over the years and Madlyn is easily in the upper echelons. The Rose Playhouse's performance space forces the audience into close proximity with the action and it's difficult not to feel a twinge of sympathy and emotion when Madlyn turns her smart, desperate true believer eyes in your direction, as if seeking salvation from those who've paid to watch her suffering.

While the Rose Playhouse might be chilly as hell at this time of year, The Lark is funny, interesting and moving enough to stave off even frostbite. Though you'll laugh this is also a sincere and touching piece of drama that does justice to the legend of Joan of Arc. Check it out, but be sure to wrap up warm and accept the theatre's offer of a blanket!

The Lark is at The Rose Playhouse until; 31st January 2015 All Performances at 7.30 pm (Sundays at 3.00 pm only) No Monday Performances

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