That burning feeling: Jehanne of the Witches

Photos by Jehanne

Photos by Jehanne

Today, not many individuals equate the French military to anything other than the idealistic vision of a few moustachioed chefs in a dingy with a French flag of surrender. At one point however, the nation was highly a feared and powerful militaristic strength. Much of this was as a result of the leadership of Joan of Arc.

The Brock University Department of Dramatic Arts will be conjuring Arc’s spirit with the Main Stage production, Jehanne of the Witches. The second Main Stage show of the academic year is performed by a student ensemble and will be premiering at the Sean O’ Sullivan Theatre on Thursday Feb. 13.

So many people know the story of Joan of Arc simply from a limited, “history 101″ perspective. They probably understand that Arc was chosen by God to lead the French army to military victory over Britain (dressed as a man), only to be later burned at the stake by her own people. However, the depth of her relationships with the King, her country and herself are not as well known by many individuals.

The director and leading actors however, have since become well-versed in Arc’s unique history. The play is solidly grounded in historical fact, written by Canadian playwright, Sally Clark. Originally written in the 1980s as part of a wave of female playwrights that attempted to tell the story of women throughout history by retelling stories from their unique feminine perspectives. The play is a benchmark for Canadian theatre.

“An insane amount of research went into the production of the play from every one of the cast members,” said Erik Bell, a fourth-year Dramatic Arts student playing the role of Baron Gilles de Rais, “The play is surprisingly accurate and a lot of our assumptions about the story were corrected”.

Brittney Stewart worked to adapt the play and essentially tutored the cast in historical contexts concerning 15th Century France and the Hundred Years’ War.

David_Jehanne_03Although certainly not the romantic comedy that might be classically considered for a Valentine’s Day weekend, the play will certainly inspire and entertain.

Beyond more than just a historical representation, the play provides deep thematic insights into highly debated issues such sexuality and feminism; and provides a commentary on political power that is still relevant today.

Although Arc being the Patron Saint of France would assumedly bring issues of religion into the fray, instead the play deals more with secular issues of political intrigue.

“The play centres around the idea of power. Who has the power and more importantly, how those people gained power,” said Katie Conseni, playing Joan of Arc as well as the role of François. “Having the most powerful individual in the play being a woman is an incredibly empowering thing.”

Conseni has a professional background as an actress, securing a lead role before her first-year at Brock in the film, Fox Fire. The role won her an award at the Spanish San Sebastian Film Festival.

Framed as a “play within a play”, François is attempting to conjure the spirit of Joan of Arc, adding a poignant dimension to a well-known story.

Although some may think that they play is a spoof of sorts of Arc’s story, it is instead a respectful and magical re-imagining of the subject material.”It’s not a spoof in any context – it’s instead something distinct and beautiful. It’s absolutely one of the best plays I’ve ever read,” said Conseni.

The conclusion of the legendary story is one of its most notable characteristics, having Joan burnt at the stake. The ending to the play however, will surprise audiences, reversing the predictable ending and creating a tense conclusion.

In fact, tension is one of the main effects the script will have on audiences. From intense battle sequences to moments of individual struggle, the subject matter is deep yet engrossing.

“Comedy comes from tragedy,” said Bell. “After the intensity of these deep scenes, the audience needs a release – they need to cry, laugh or scream. By inserting even the smallest joke, it provides them with a way to break the tension”.

The physicality of the actors, trampling across the stage with their large scale props and heavy armoured costumes is impressive and the competence of the director, Virginia Reh is masterful. She essentially takes the audience on a journey of emotional evolution.

“It’s a really fun play,” said Bell. “It features some amazingly dramatic and epic moments. At the end of the play there is also a great message – if you think there is a message, that is.”

If you need an excuse to revisit your discarded textbooks of history and feminist pedagogy, Jehanne of the Witches is sure to inspire.

Jehanne of the Witches will be playing at the Sean O’ Sullivan Theatre from Feb. 13 to 15 at 7:30 p.m. with a student matinee performance on Feb. 14 at 1:00 p.m. Tickets are $15 for students and $18 for regular admission. Tickets can be purchased at the Centre for the Arts box office.

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