Saint Joan

Sarah Snook’s ca­reer arc brings her back to the Syd­ney stage

Time Out (Sydney) - - INSIDE - By Ben Neutze. Por­trait by Daniel Boud

“It’s still a mas­sive mys­tery how Joan achieved all that she did”

THE STORY OF an il­lit­er­ate teenage farm girl, called upon by divine voices to lead the French army to vic­tory against Eng­land, is more the stuff of su­per­heroes than real life, says ac­tor Sarah Snook. “Part of the mys­tery of her is her in­ex­pli­ca­ble na­ture,” Snook says. “You can look at the facts – which aren’t de­bated – but it’s still a mas­sive mys­tery as to how she achieved all that she did.”

Sto­ries of Joan of Arc’s life and death at the stake – her knack for win­ning ar­gu­ments with more ed­u­cated and ex­pe­ri­enced men couldn’t quite save her in the early ages of witch burn­ings – are well doc­u­mented and con­tinue to be told six cen­turies on. “There are some peo­ple in his­tory that have had such a spark that their light gets car­ried on through the gen­er­a­tions,” Snook says.

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant fig­ures to carry Joan’s torch is Ge­orge Bernard Shaw, who in 1923 wrote the most pop­u­lar the­atri­cal ver­sion of her story of the last cen­tury, Saint Joan. But, ac­cord­ing to di­rec­tor Imara Sav­age, who is tack­ling Shaw’s play for Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany, Joan isn’t al­ways at the cen­tre of her own play. She’s also the only fe­male char­ac­ter. “Men talk about her for a long time and then she makes these cameo ap­pear­ances,” Sav­age says. “It’s some­thing I felt re­ally weird about. Peo­ple talk about it as a fe­male Ham­let, and, well, Ham­let’s on stage for most of the play.”

Sav­age is work­ing to re­frame the ac­tion so it’s seen through Joan’s eyes. It was a nec­es­sary evo­lu­tion for Sav­age in di­rect­ing a play about a teenage girl writ­ten al­most a cen­tury ago by a man in his late six­ties. “There’s Shaw’s ver­sion of who Joan is, and then there’s mine and Sarah’s con­tin­ued con­ver­sa­tion about who we think she is, and how she should be por­trayed to­day. Some­times they align, and some­times they butt up against each other.”

To nav­i­gate that ten­sion, Sav­age needed a killer ac­tor in the lead­ing role. Orange Is the New Black star Yael Stone was ini­tially slated to ap­pear un­til her preg­nancy caused her to drop out. Thank­fully the dou­ble AACTA-win­ning Snook hap­pened to have a gap in her sched­ule, just af­ter film­ing a lead­ing role in the first sea­son of HBO’s se­ries Suc­ces­sion.

“Sarah does any­thing; she tries ev­ery­thing,” Sav­age says. “I love work­ing with those ac­tors, even when you ask them to do things that you know are go­ing to be shit, they’ll just try it any­way.”

In 2016 Snook ap­peared op­po­site Ralph Fi­ennes in the Lon­don sea­son of The Mas­ter

Builder, but she hasn’t been on an Aus­tralian stage since 2011. Joan is her big­gest role in Aus­tralian theatre so far, and while Snook ad­mits that’s a lit­tle daunt­ing, she’s find­ing her strength in the hero­ine she’ll be em­body­ing: “If she can lead the French army to vic­tory, I can stand and pre­tend to be her for a bit.” Roslyn Packer Theatre, 22 Hick­son Rd, Walsh Bay 2000. 02 9250 1777. syd­neythe­atre.com.au. $83-$120. Jun 5-30.

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