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September 4, 2013 5:54 pm
Staging a play about the legendary medieval pope – a John who was secretly a Joan – in an imposing, Christopher Wren-designed church was both an inspired choice and a trade-off. This production by the National Youth Theatre conveys well the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Vatican, thick with gossip and in-fighting – and its location, complete with hard pews and heavy incense, heightens the drama. The cast make use of the large space, processing down the central aisle then filling the gloomy nooks and crannies with strange whispers. But St James’s acoustics are undeniably echoey, and the actors often over-enunciate to compensate. It’s hard to achieve subtlety and shade when you’re worried about being heard.
Pope Joan is full of good ideas that mostly, or almost, work. It opens with a rendition of “My Lady’s Story” by Antony and the Johnsons, whose lead singer Antony Hegarty is transgender. It’s an appropriate choice – yet it feels a little too neat. And however talented the singers, they can’t match the emotional power of Hegarty’s extraordinary voice (there are more Antony and the Johnsons numbers in the show). First-time playwright Louise Brealey gives Joan’s story a freshness and immediacy, but the plot’s balance feels wrong. I wanted more back-story – how an undercover woman came to be pope – and less overt gender politics. The young Joan’s closing speech, in particular, felt too much like undigested authorial opinion.
The play’s feminist message is most compelling in a scene without any words. In a bold stroke by director Paul Hart, Joan bares her breasts on the altar then travels down the aisle by clambering over the shoulders of a group of hooded monks, towering over us like some wild pagan goddess. Many of the audience were visibly shocked: one man clapped his hands over his mouth aghast. Such reaction said more about the position of women – how far we have or haven’t come in 1,000 years of history – than any of the rousing speeches about Mary Magdalene.
Sophie Crawford as Pope Joan holds the large cast together brilliantly. But the stand-out performance is from Robert Willoughby as the ambitious, conniving Cardinal Anastasius, lending the production both humour and weight.
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