Review: The Lark, Chester Theatre Club.

“After centuries of abuse, repudiation, prejudice, misunderstanding, and indifference, Joan has been vindicated.”

Joan of Arc a name which penetrates popular culture. Utter Joan’s name and religion, history and woman’s liberation come to the fore, contradictions in terms, just as Joan was.

On a wet April evening we rush to the Little Theatre to see Chester Theatre Clubs production of The Lark. Arriving a bit damp we make our way upstairs to the cosy auditorium, which is packed. On stage the actors are not hidden behind the curtain but already in character and we are quickly transported into 15th Century France.

As dialogue begins we are brought back and forth through Joan’s trial by the Catholic church and memories of her childhood, to her leading an army of men into battle. The themes arising are not only relevant in 15th century France but even today as we discuss women’s ability to fight on the front line.

Joan, a rural teenager, hears voices from heaven who guide her towards an attempt to banish the English through heroism and battle. As she endeavours to gain her parents support, or at least understanding, we observe her parents shame, not only do they have a daughter who is hearing voices but one who wants to defy all realms of tradition and etiquette. Her father, paranoid and convinced that Joan’s urge to lead men is stimulated by her sexual desires, beats her mercilessly. Her mother, initially comforting and sympathetic, begins to also mistrusts Joan’s motives, simplifying them into Joan’s desires, she becomes disgusted with Joan when she continues to be forthright about being talked to from heaven.

Joan’s strength and courage leads her forward and we are brought on a hilarious journey, as Joan outwits the gentry with her whit and charm into supporting her cause. In the first of these endeavours we see her avoiding Robert de Beaudricorts sexual advances, eventually winning him over to become the first stepping stone of support on her journey. The acting in this scene is fantastic, Joan convinces Beaudricorts to help her by polishing his ego and twisting his thoughts so he himself takes credit for Joan ideas. This is the first time we see Joan really coming to life, with spark and charisma she becomes hugely likeable. Beaudricorts is played beautifully and is totally believable, full of pomp and hot air! By the end of the scene he has become a loveable even if he is a buffoon!

Joan’s journey strengthens in pace and her next endeavour is to win the support of Charles, the Dauphin, whose leadership is marked with indecisiveness and inaction. His playful, yet fearful nature, make him a somewhat of a mockery. Through Joan’s charm and strength of will, she begins to boost his self-esteem and convinces him that his support of her will lead to him be viewed in a more positive light and receive the praise he dully deserves. He cannot resist Joan’s promise and overcoming his fear he valiantly organises what she needs. The scene is also very entertaining and Charles is played wonderfully,  the dichotomy between his childish nature and is underlying desire for public adoration provides a humourous mix.

We leave the first half filled with hope for Joan’s cause, completely engaged with the story and looking forward to more! After a cup of coffee (for 80p!) and some free biscuits we head back up to the auditorium to be once again transported across the channel and back to the 15th century.

The second half begins on a sombre note and does not lift throughout. Joan has been captured and her trial by the English supporting Catholic clergy is in full swing. She has been abandoned by her family and by her king. We watch as her story, enthusiasm and spirit is torn apart by the clerics. Religious atmosphere has been a force throughout the play but now it gains momentum and really comes to life. Three characters are with Joan throughout the trial, the Promoter  who “could see only the Devil” within Joan, the Bishop who sympathised with “the pride of a young girl intoxicated with success” and  the Inquisitor who holds the cold and arrogant position of the Holy Inquisition. Throughout the second half we see these three characters battle for their opinion to be heard. Each of the characters is played stunningly. Cauchon, the Bishop, is unrelenting in his desperation to get Joan to surrender and avoid burning at the stake. His reasoning and warmth win Joan over initially and every step of the way we are drawn into Cauchon’s plea. The Inquisitor’s disdain for the common person leaves the stage cold every time he speaks, his underlying anger sometimes coming to the fore before being buried under his aloof persona. The contrast between this and Cauchon’s warmth leaves the audience rooting for Cauchon to win Joan over. And then there is the Promotor, who is bound by the teachings of the church and cannot sway from his cynicism. This character, thrown into the mix, makes Cauchon’s plea even stronger. The dynamics between these three characters and Joan is played to perfection.

In the end Joan gives in and is sentenced to life imprisonment, reflecting on her choice and her future in chains she overthrows her initial conforming stance and becomes subversive, declaring that she would  rather be burnt at the stake than live a life which denies her own truth. And so it is that Joan was brought to the stake. But in a humours twist Joan is granted a finite pardon to view the coronation of Charles, she is saved by Robert who becomes her sympathiser once again. Of course history tells a different story but as we leave the theatre we remember Joan as victorious, with sword and flag flying, saved from the flames to live another day.

We had a wonderful evening at the Little Theatre and we were blown away by the acting we observed on stage. Joan was a triumph, becoming more and more believable as the story unfolded. We will be looking out for more productions from the Chester Theatre Club, we found the production to be professional and hugely enjoyable.

If you are interested in seeing a production please see the Chester Theater Club’s website for information: www.chestertheatreclub.co.uk.  The Lark is on until 17th May 2014 at 7.30pm.

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