In Jean Anouihl’s play, the lark is Joan of Arc. In the Brisbane Arts Theatre production directed by Pat Wallace, the part that soars above the rest is that of the Dauphin, as played by Timothy Wotherspoon, an actor from whom – on the basis of this performance – one can expect great things in the future. And we’ll come back to that in a minute. First of all, though, it is the play that is the thing.
And it’s many years since I’ve had the pleasure of seeing an Anouihl play, so I am grateful to the Arts Theatre for reviving The Lark. Not having seen it before, I was a little worried about a play whose denouement is the burning of a 19-year-old at the stake. I should have had more confidence in Anouihl’s style, and in his capacity to turn Joan of Arc’s story into a play of ideas rather than simply working up to an unbearable climax. Instead, he developed it into a vehicle for introducing some provocative debates on still contemporary issues, such as the power of religious institutions, and the extent of personal responsibility for one’s actions (our increasingly litigious society: please take note).
Fresh from all the publicity surrounding schizophrenia and A Beautiful Mind, it was also impossible to avoid wondering with Joan’s matter-of-fact assertions about her visions, and the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her father whether what we were seeing was a case history of mental illness. And this, apparently, is an issue that has also been debated over the years, but not in this play.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to develop too much sympathy for Joan as interpreted by Judith Barbeler, whose portrayal sways between Playschool cute and Drew Barrymore waiting for ET to return. Her one moment of maturity and dignity, showing what might have been, occurs as she is meeting her fate at the stake.
There are, on the other hand, some very capable performances from among the large cast. The three clerical judges are all strongly played characters, forcefully led by Hugh Buckham as the Bishop Cauchon, in charge of the trial, and ably supported by Richard Spring as Prosecutor d’Estivet, and David Fitzgerald as the Spanish Inquisitor. Each of them has opportunities to put forward some challenging points of view, while the Earl of Warwick is well played by John Grey, as a somewhat jaded pragmatist. In contrast, Martin Blum seems somewhat flat as the sympathetic Brother Ladvenu.
Derek Haakman, a recent import from New Zealand, makes Robert de Beaudricourt an engaging buffoon, and the ladies of the court give their parts a spark (Shauna Corrigan as Queen Yolande, Alana Scott as Queen Marie, and Jessica Loudon as Agnes Sorel). But the play really comes alive when Wotherspoon comes on stage, to do wonderful things with the unexpectedly hilarious role of the weak, vacillating, wheedling, expedient Dauphin who would be King Charles VII. It is just a pity that most of what he has to do with his highly expressive face, witty style and perfect timing takes place in Act I.
The whole play is well served by Michael McMahon and Una Hollingworth’s minimalist set which shifts effectively between the two courts, of judgment and of the Dauphin. And the simple cross that dominates the scene at the apex of the stage is a silent commentary throughout.
Overall, this play is an excellent inclusion in the Arts Theatre’s 66th season, giving its audience a glittering performer within a sound production of a very worthwhile revival of a play from a mid-20th century, existential philosopher-playwright who deserves to be remembered.