Saturday, 24 September 2022

Theatre review: I, Joan

On to my third play in a row with trans and non-binary themes, and by far the most high-profile: Charlie Josephine's I, Joan garnered angry and entirely predictable criticism long before anyone had seen it, once it was revealed that Joan of Arc would be portrayed using they/them pronouns*. Obviously, the idea that a woman who chose to die rather than wear a frock might have been less than 100% femme is a bit of a leap, but let's suspend disbelief for a bit shall we? Joan's story, from illiterate peasant girl, to unlikely military leader, to 14 seasons of Knots Landing, to martyrdom and finally becoming a patron saint of France, has been told on stage many times, and apart from a few speeches that directly address the play's take on gender, Josephine follows the familiar story beats: France has been beaten down by England, and Charles the Dauphin (Jolyon Coy) has been disinherited from his position as heir to the throne.

With nobody else coming up with any better ideas, Joan (Isobel Thom) is actually listened to when she arrives with a plan to solve both problems for him by leading an army of the people. Something she reveals to him in secret - the mystery of which will eventually be one of the things used against her - convinces Charles that she is indeed chosen by god.

It takes a while to convince the established army, but Joan's leadership pays dividends, reclaiming a number of major cities from the English and getting Charles crowned. Once he's King though he resents her popularity detracting from his own and sends her off on side missions to keep her out of the way. With his support gone, her enemies are ready to strike, especially when Joan starts to articulate that she doesn't actually feel like a "she" at all. I really liked this aspect of the play because in practice it feels like one of the least controversial elements of the rewriting of history: We all know how this story ends, even Joan does in their prologue, and we know the reason for it. All we're getting here is a reframing of it within language and concepts that we have at our disposal, but Joan wouldn't have done.

Surely the bigger deviation from the traditional representation of Joan of Arc is the religious side of their personality, which sees this Joan distance themself from the Church long before it turned on them: Their god (who has she/her pronouns) is the voice in their head saying that the peasant girl life on offer is completely wrong, and they need to don male armour and fight. It essentially becomes a metaphor for their thoughts and feelings contradicting what the world tells them is true about themself. I did think, that in reframing Joan as a new non-binary hero it whitewashed some of the character's darker sides; the idea that Joan's devastated to discover that slaughtering an army means killing people is a bit much, and the only hint of tunnel-visioned religious zealotry is when they cast out their most faithful ally Thomas (Adam Gillen) for daring to question their convictions.

In a way Thom effectively conveys two different Joans: In the speeches to the audience and eventually the religious court, they're articulate about gender, and clearly representing a modern perspective. In most of the scenes of the story itself, they do find some understanding of themselves but never quite the words - Thomas coins the they/them pronouns for them just before the interval, but they're not used consistently even by him and Joan, and there's always the feeling that the pronouns will do, but don't quite satisfy Joan as a descriptor yet.

Thom is well-supported, with Coy largely a comic foil as the foppish Charles, but his childish selfishness has bite once he becomes King. Esmonde Cole, Kevin McMonagle and Baker Mukasa are his ever-present henchmen, while Jonah Russell provides the obligatory grizzled old soldier who doesn't respect Joan until they get results and he becomes their biggest fan. It's interesting that Charles' Queen Marie (Janet Etuk) and the Queen Mother-in-Law Yolande (Debbie Korley) first appear amid gags about them bossing Charles around, and some Girl Power-style lines to get easy audience cheers: They turn out to be the most brutal in demanding Joan conform to female norms, and suffer every injustice they have because of their sex; I don't think it's any coincidence that we get this when some of the most vicious attacks on trans people today come wrapped in the name of feminism.

Joan also eventually gets their own, largely female and gender-ambiguous, little army, making for a large cast that director Ilinca Radulian throws around the stage, which Naomi Kuyck-Cohen's design has turned into one big wooden slide for the cast to throw themselves down, and the more agile members to clamber back up again during the battle scenes. The movement (Glynn MacDonald) and choreography (Jennifer Jackson) are a major and often bizarre aspect of the production: The jury of clerics wobbling around in circles like they're in the "True Faith" video is certainly... a thing that happens, but Joan's army defeating their enemies through the gift of interpretative dance is overused to the point of being relentless.

And that's where I couldn't love I, Joan as much as I wanted to, because it feels like an incredibly effective two to two-and-a-half hour show that actually runs for nearly three, and both ideas and visual motifs get repeated and stretched out longer than they needed to be. It still packs a punch, and for the many trans and non-binary people I'm sure it'll attract to the Globe it'll be a powerful message of inclusion in a venue that's built for just that kind of feeling.

I, Joan by Charlie Josephine is booking in repertory until the 22nd of October at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

*this being a Shakespearean theatre, anyone with objections to Josephine tweaking Joan of Arc's history would I'm sure be much more comfortable with Shakespeare's own, rigorously historically accurate rendering. You know, the one where she's a slutty witch whose army are literally demons.

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