In The Nursery: The Passion of Joan of Arc/Jo Quail

St. Leonard's Church, Shoreditch, London - 1 June 2013


"Dreyer's images were somehow spilling out of the bottom of the screen"

[In The Nursery poster][The Pasison of Joan of Arc photo]
St. Leonard's, or plain old Shoreditch church as it is often referred to as, is a large, active urban C of E church, ten minutes walk from Old Street tube station. It is best-known from the words to the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”: “When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch”, and is also where several noted actors from the Tudor period are buried. So even though it always has been, and remains, predominantly a place of worship, there's been a theatrical aspect to the venue for much of its existence. There was something slightly mysterious, exotic even about walking up to such an imposing building, as dusk descended, with the objective of seeing a film accompanied by a live score instead of the kind of worship it is used to. The entrance to the vestibule was via two large wooden doors. One of which was closed and adorned with posters and hand-written information about this evening's performance. The other door was ajar, just enough to see the interior bathed in a warming and welcoming orange light. We stepped inside...

Cellist Jo Quail was the support act. Only 'cellist' doesn't really provide much of an indication of her sound or style, nor does it do justice to her set. We'd missed about the first half. What we did hear was essentially Quail and her electric cello with abstract projections behind her in sync with the music. Quail introduced, at some length, each of the pieces she played. Though this came across as a little unusual in the context of the evening, here it most definitely helped understand and appreciate her compositions. For example, when she explained that one piece was written about the large timbers that are revealed on a beach off the west coast of England when the
wind is up and the tide goes out. It was then almost impossible not to visualise the scene as she played. Which for me demonstrated that her writing really was evocative of its inspiration.

Some of In The Nursery's performances of their film scores in the UK are a rare as hens teeth. Even though their soundtrack for Carl Theodor Dreyer's acknowledged silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc was released in 2008, the accompanying live performances at the time were very limited. Consequently, this was the first chance I'd had to not only hear it in a live setting, but The Passion of Joan of Arc was a gap in my otherwise fairly extensive knowledge of silent German cinema. As a coming together of different disciplines across the divide of the best part of a century this was nigh on perfect. ITN's score is one of their less 'typical' ones, by which I mean their characteristic sounds are played down in favour of a much broader classical palette. It also incorporates an element of foley work, such as the sound of flames during the climatic final act. They've opted for instrumentation (or at least sounds) that although obviously not slavishly of the era in which the film is set is, nevertheless, designed to (and does) sit naturally with Dreyer's images.

The setting inside Shoreditch church was ideal. It meant the religious iconography in the film extended beyond the two dimensions of the screen, surrounding the congregation sat in the hard wooden pews. With the Humberstone twins delivering their score live, this really was an immersive experience. The placement of a very large lone candle, positioned on the floor deliberately between ITN's live equipment set-up and at the foot of the screen, flickering as it was throughout, created the phantom impression that Dreyer's images were somehow spilling out of the bottom of the screen and into the church.

Dreyer's film itself lives up to all that I've heard about it down the years. It is astonishing. It feels as much like a film purporting to have been released in 1928 rather than actually having been released in that year as it just doesn't feel as old as it is. The script was based on verbatim transcripts of the real trial of Joan of Arc (she of Roman Catholic saint and OMD song fame ;-)), and given the creative and artistic restrictions Dreyer placed upon himself and his production team, it's a testament to the remarkable skill of him and his cohort of filmmakers that such a dry-sounding proposition is about as far away from that as it is able to experience. It is totally captivating. Renne Jeanne Falconetti's leading performance (shot extensively in extreme close-up) provides both the heart and soul of the film. Hers really is one of the all-time best on-screen performances you'll ever have the fortune to witness.

What ITN have achieved with their score then is really very clever. Due to the effort to sound contemporary with the period depicted, it never intrudes on the images. Rather it eases their flow. It also manages to quicken the pulse and emphasise the drama without falling into dramatics itself. As a stand alone score it works well on its own terms. Presented in combination with the visuals for which it was composed, it is a potent and moving experience. 8/10

Rob Dyer

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