views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Lark
The Cockpit
1st November 2014

★★★☆☆

Maud Madlyn as Joan of Arc

Photography © Robert Piwko

Nothing gets people running for the hills as quickly as the arrival of an Angry Feminist. Naturally, as a woman, I'm very much in favour of female rights, but for me, there are ways and then there are ways of getting the message across. Defiant Reality began life with a show about porn stars and their latest project is a bilingual version of The Lark. Can't spot a feminist agenda there? Good. That means they're doing it right. What both productions have in common are strong female characters; women who have the strength of their convictions to be judged in their own right for their own actions.

This production of The Lark is a mixture of Jean Anouilh's original French version and a translation by Christopher Fry. We meet Joan of Arc (Maud Madlyn) as she is being tried by the Earl of Warwick (George Collie), Cauchon (Jim Mannering), the Promoter (Pip Gladwin), the Inquisitor (Roberto Landi) and Brother Ladvenu (Billy Coughlin). We see it all - from Joan's simple life at home with her mother (Bridget Mastrocola) and father (Landi) to her attempt to persuade ruling monarch Charles le Dauphin (Tom Grace) to let her lead his army to victory over the English. As you do, if you're a simple peasant girl.

Madlyn is the perfect choice to play Joan. She imbues her performance with a childlike exuberance and quiet determination, emphasising Joan's beliefs and her tender age. She may have been burned at the stake; she may have led soldiers into battle. But Joan was but a girl during all of these staggering historical moments and Madlyn's delivery makes sure we never forget that. She also transitions seamlessly between the French and English dialogue, something not all the rest of the cast pull off with the same skill.

The stronger parts of The Lark are undoubtedly those with a comedic bent. Charles is made a figure of ridicule, with Grace playing with a ball and cup and hiding under his cape, giggling. Granted, there's not much to laugh about when it comes to killing a teenager, but the majority of this play is about acknowledging her life rather than her death, and there are more opportunities for humour to be brought out even further.

Tom Grace as Charles le Dauphin

Photography © Robert Piwko

At times, the production did seem to be lost on the stage, despite the relatively large cast of nine. However, it's worth pointing out that this run at The Cockpit is only a teaser, with a longer run planned at The Rose next year. At that venue, the main stage and height are both halved, and this is a show which will work better with that more intimate space.

I'm not sure how director Sophie Moniram plans to handle the translation at the The Rose, but I half-hope she doesn't bother. Let me clarify. In this staging, subtitles are projected onto the back wall to translate the French lines. The text makes full use of the screen, but given the grand space of The Cockpit, this means that if you look at the words, you cannot keep the actors in you peripheral vision. You can just about get away with it when the ceiling is low (think The Whip or Drink, Shop & Do), but here it becomes, well, Sophie's choice. Immediate written comprehension, or slower visual comprehension? I actually think the non-French speakers in the audience probably could get by without the translation, there's not that much French and the actors do interpret to an extent through their expressions and movement.

In this production, it's made crystal that Jean acts out of a religious conviction - we believe she believes, there's no question mark over her mental health. Those voices speaking to her? Saints, rather than untreated schizophrenia. She acts out of honour, even to the point of martyrdom. The play makes clear that she won't be executed if only she acts a bit more ladylike and stops insisting that God is giving her messages, but she can't deny her beliefs, even at the ultimate cost. There's something to be admired there.

As the men fall short of begging Joan to pretend that she's okay with living a lie, purely to save her life, their weakness contrasts with her courage. Misplaced maybe, depending on your point of view, but the point is, she's brave. I guess that's something we already knew, and that's where a quandary arises. Does The Lark sing us any new tales about Joan of Arc? Does it need to? She's not the most well-represented historical figure in British classrooms, and maybe simply put, this an old tale which needs retelling.

The Lark ran from 1st to 4th November 2014 at The Cockpit, as part of the Voila Festival. It transferred to The Rose from 20th to 31st January 2015.

Nearest station: Marylebone (Bakerloo)



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