Growing up in Adelaide, Sarah Snook won a drama scholarship to the city’s prestigious school Scotch College. “It had a really good performing arts program there. Strangely enough, my drama teacher there, who was excellent and a great inspiration, he wanted to put on Joan of Arc whilst I was there, for me to play Joan,” says Snook. “It never eventuated but he’d always be like ‘you should play Joan at some point’, and I was like ‘yeah, maybe I will’, so it’s nice coming full circle like that. I wanted to email him and tell him it’s on.”
Sarah Snook as Saint Joan. Photo © Rene Vaile
Snook is about to star in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan for Sydney Theatre Company, directed by Imara Savage. Telling the story of the 15th century French military figure, who was only 19 when she was burned at the stake, Shaw’s play premiered on Broadway in 1923, three years after Joan of Arc was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church, before arriving in London the following year.
Snook has gathered a head of steam since graduating from NIDA in 2008. She has played lead roles on television in The Beautiful Lie and The Secret River. On film, she starred in Predestination with Ethan Hawke, and has also appeared in Steve Jobs and The Dressmaker among others. In 2016, she starred on stage at London’s Old Vic in The Master Builder with Ralph Fiennes.
She has just finished making the first season of a US drama television series called Succession, about a dysfunctional American global-media family, and she is looking forward to getting back into the theatre. “It’s a different set of muscles and something I always miss and want to come back to,” she says.
Snook speaks to Limelight just before rehearsals begin but she has already done a lot of research outside the rehearsal room. “I like to hit the ground running as much as possible rather than from a standing still position, especially for a character like this,” she says.
“I always start with the play, but I’ve been reading a couple of books about her by historians – one that’s focused more on the human side of her, called Joan of Arc by Helen Castor, and another book that focuses more on the historical context. Because I was in England recently [with Succession] and so close to France, I thought I’d just nip over quickly to Rouen where she was tried and burnt at the stake. I saw the tower she threw herself out of, and saw the square and the spot where she was burnt, and there’s an amazing museum there. It’s fascinating to see that the town still commemorates her. It really brings home that she was a real girl, a 19-year old girl, who did amazing things – and half a century later plus, we’re still talking about her,” says Snook.
“It’s fascinating for me in the research I’ve been doing [that] she is shaped by generations that rediscover her. You find her as a very demure figure in some places and then a Viking-like figure in others.” Shaw based his version on the substantial records of her trial. “But today, she’s maybe like someone from Pussy Riot or Emma González from the Parkland shooting – young people who stand up for what they believe in,” says Snook.
Joan was still a peasant girl when she claimed to hear voices sent to her by God, who wanted her to help the French drive out their English occupiers. “And she behaved in quite a teenaged kind of way – that very impassioned, fight within her, and yet maybe not with the understanding of the bureaucratic nuances around her. She just barrels through,” says Snook. “She never fought, she wielded a sword and banner, but she never killed anyone in the battles. And yet she threw herself blindly on the mercy of God basically, and survived in the battles at least.”
In the play, Joan is the only woman, surrounded by men who are constantly talking about her and how to control her. “They’re terrified of her. And she should be terrified of them, but she’s not which I think is so empowering and interesting,” says Snook.
The fact that Joan of Arc is a religious fundamentalist is certainly timely today. “There’s a higher power and a spiritual side of her that she believes in 100 percent, in a black and white kind of way. And that in some ways is quite inspiring, and, depending on which side you were on, also kind of terrifying, I guess,” says Snook.
“She says in Shaw’s version ‘England for the English, France for the French, God gave us our own languages and countries and didn’t want us to go into another country and speak their language’, which is so anti-globalisation. But in a funny kind of way that makes sense to a teenager who sees things in black and white. But that’s a scary proposition for now if religion is brought into that.”
Saint Joan plays at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 5 – 30