4 May 2012

My Week with Joan

Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn, has recently been released on DVD in the UK. In 1956 Monroe was filming The Prince and the Showgirl in England under Laurence Olivier’s direction.

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I spent a week, not with Marilyn, who died in 1962, but with Joan. Sadly not Baez, let alone Bakewell, but as one of the cast of Saint Joan, the play by George Bernard Shaw.

It seems appropriate to post about Saint Joan this year, the 500th anniversary of the birth of Jeanne d’Arc in eastern France. At the age of 18 she led an insurrection against the English occupation in the north:
… Did you ever see English soldiers fighting? 
JOAN. They are only men. God made them just like us; but He gave them their own country and their own language; and it is not His will that they should come into our country and try to speak our language.
A sentiment expressed frequently since Shaw penned it in 1924, four years after Jeanne d’Arc’s canonisation. When her rebellion failed, we, with the collusion of our Burgundian allies, put her on religious trial for heresy and then to the stake at Rouen in 1431. Shaw, when writing his play, drew on the transcripts of the trial and had Sybil Thorndike in mind as Joan. She was the first of many well-known actresses to tackle a dramatic role of strong character and intelligence, a saint who was being judged by the ecclesiastical bureaucrats of the day for wider political purposes. Others who have taken Joan on since include Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and Imogen Stubbs.

For any school to put on this play, given the maturity of its theme (adult no longer being the right adjective to use), might sound ambitious. However a quick Google search turns up productions of Saint Joan in Lewes County Grammar School in 1966 and at the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys in 1960. The latter featured Paul McCartney and Peter Sissons (later a TV newscaster) in its cast. For an all-boys school, even ones with a strong tradition of drama and suitable staging, there was a particular and obvious problem. Most of the characters in Saint Joan are male and not particularly noteworthy, like the one I played. But the most important part isn’t. Some schools in these circumstances might have turned to a female teacher, if they had one, a local girls school or one of the staff’s partners to play Joan, but our schoolmaster producer decided to make use of the considerable acting talents of one of the younger boys. This also seems to have been the solution adopted at the Liverpool Institute.

As it turned out, things weren’t as difficult as one might expect at first sight. For a start Jeanne d’Arc is known to have worn men’s clothing, “rational dressing” according to Shaw. So our boy-Joan could wear simple mediaeval peasant costume of an androgynous nature and tuck the unavoidable anomalies out of the way with the help of Fred Hurtley Ltd. In our generation puberty came later than now so the risk of the biological clock causing the lead’s voice to break before the performance wasn’t great, although potentially catastrophic.

It was in fact our week with Joan, starting with full cast rehearsals and then (I think four) nightly performances ending on the Saturday. How successful a production it really was, I can’t now tell, though I fancy that the performance of the boy playing Joan was remarkably convincing. Although in some ways the 1960s are still with us, say in the form of the Rolling Stones (not to mention McCartney again), in reality five decades have passed – halfway back to the sinking of the SS Titanic - and even at the time putting on a play like this was a bit of a throwback. The school theatricals described in Griff Rhys Jones’ autobiography, Semi-Detached, were not dissimilar, but, of course, his perspective is that of someone who went on to make a career as a performer.

I can’t imagine many teenagers today being that keen to perform in Saint Joan. Although the institution I attended has long since become mixed and Joan’s casting probably wouldn’t present quite the same difficulties, it seems unlikely that any school or college would choose to put on this particular play or many of Shaw’s others, come to that, even if they had the resources. In January an article in The Times (£), Why does Eton pump out acting talent?, drew attention to the emphasis there on drama of all kinds and the acting talent (Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis and Dominic West, for example) which Eton College has recently produced. Their theatrical facilities are, of course, outstanding. I don’t think our more modest efforts did us any harm and probably helped to develop confidence in speaking in public – how to say it, if not what to say. The member of our cast who later became a prominent politician is certainly a competent speechmaker, but not in the class of that Macmillanesque Prime-Minister-actor-manager, Anthony Lynton Blair.

In his brief biography, Blair, Mick Temple makes an interesting point about his subject’s schooldays at Fettes College, “the Eton of the North”, in the late 1960s:
… there was one school tradition he enthusiastically embraced. The actor in Tony Blair was apparent from early on. Acting had a rich tradition at Fettes and for his house production of Julius Caesar, Tony was given the role of Mark Antony over the claims of more senior boys. He was to play key roles in future school productions, including Captain Stanhope in R C Sheriff’s Journey’s End and Drinkwater in George Bernard Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. His dramatic acting and his performances in revues were widely praised and more than one of his compatriots or tutors is convinced he could have had a successful career as an actor. Not to be flippant, there are some who would argue that he did; an essential part of his early political appeal was to be able to convince whoever he was talking to that they shared deep political beliefs.

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