I left the National Youth Theatre’s production of Pope Joan feeling both angry and extremely moved. The disputed myth of the first and only female Pope touched something very deep in my psychology. Pope Joan is a medieval tale about the alleged first (and only) female Pope who rose to the top of the Vatican styling herself as ‘John’- she is devout, brave and willing to risk anything to be close to God. Prior to the start of the action, Joan has revealed her true identity to a Cardinal in the Vatican who she has slept with and is now carrying his child, obviously problematic in her desire to maintain her male disguise.
Joan’s problems, therefore, are tenfold. She is not blameless in the child’s conception and does not wish to keepit, as her cover will be blown. However, by aborting the child she feels as if she would be angering God because this would be a disavowal of God’s gift to females: the ability to procreate. Sophie Crawford’s (Joan) expressive eyes internalise this pain and conflict, in a tour de force of a performance. Crawford makes it clear that is her body that is her betrayer, and that she is torn in a fundamental dichotomy between her faith and her biology. Although her faith is stronger than any mans, her body renders this faith heretical. She dies a martyr as she is ‘discovered’ when she goes into labour whilst giving a delivering a sermon in the pulpit.
The setting of the play in St James’s Church, in Piccadilly is perfect for the production. It allows designer Fi Russell to excel in creating an extremely atmospheric setting, because she has already been given the gift of the ornate church wall and stained glass to work from as a backdrop. She has pushed the altar back and has filled the floor space with an enormous horizontal white cross. This acts as a raised stage for the action, and is a constant reminder throughout the play of Christ’s bodily sacrifice to God, reflecting upon Joan’s own struggle with her body.
Considering this is her first published play, Louise Brealey’s script is excellent, particularly the dialogue between Joan and her antagonist, the snarling Cardinal Anastasius who wants the papacy for himself, played with a sting by Robert Willoughby. The most powerful moment in the show is a silent physical scene where director Paul Hart uses the National Youth Theatre’s ensemble training to create a staircase up the isles and to the to Church altar which Crawford climbs up, breasts bared reaching out in desperation to the edifice of Christ above her head. She is prepared to give her body over entirely to Christ, but it is that same body and the child growing inside her that nullifies her connection with God.
Richard Geller and John Lipman have excelled in their creating the costumes for this piece. In tandem with Russell’s design and the church setting, Joan’s papal robes are heavily brocaded, creating an authoritarian sweep around he as she commands the Vatican, cutting through the dust of the Church. Anastasius is dressed, fittingly, in long and rich Satan-red robes, elongating Willoughby’s already tall natural height to make him tower above Joan and the rest of the Vatican, a genuine threat. The strengths in this production are typical of the National Youth Theatre, as they lie in the incorporation of the space into the ensemble work. As you sit in the pews, the Vatican meets, squabbles and shouts all around you, creating a multi-sensory experience where the entire cast is valuable in creating the scene around you.
Although this is a fictional story and has become long-embroiled in Christian and urban mythology, the tale of Pope Joan is particularly pertinent to today’s modern professional women facing the problems of maintaining a work-life balance between their career ambitions and their desire (or not) to have a family. Pope Joan is an aptly timed show, performed just as the bill to allow women bishops in Wales was passed, proof that the Church is finally accepting that the strength of your faith is irrelevant to your gender.