I, Joan – Shakespeare’s Globe, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Charlie Josephine

Director: Ilinca Radulian

There was a hubbub, stirred up by the right-wing tabloid media, about Charlie Josephine’s new retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. By presenting Joan as a non-binary person, the mouth-frothing declared that the Globe was denying Joan’s place in history as a woman.

Away from the concocted ire, I, Joan is nothing like that – yet at the same time, it is absolutely, 100%, totally all about the attitudes to patriarchy, womanhood and the fear of trans identity that triggered the negative reactions in the first place. That such reactions to news of the play, by those who had not seen anything of it beyond a poster image, exist at all is the reason why I, Joan deserves its place on the Globe’s stage.

With every other version of Joan of Arc told by dramatists and, occasionally, historians who view historical life through a patriarchal, heteronormative lens, Joan was a young woman who dressed in the armour of a warrior so that she could lead the French army into battle against the invading Britons – and because such armour was only ever constructed for men, she had to assume the mantle of a man in order to do so.

Josephine flips the story. Their version of Joan – an exuberant, joyous teenager played with infectious vigour by Isobel Thom in their first professional role – is driven to fight by a calling from God, but their rejection of the femininities of the French court is driven less by a need to be militaristic, and more because they feel that the boxes in which men place their women are too small and constrictive.

The idea of rejecting pigeonholes, of the need to be oneself and the fight that ensues, is one of the dominant themes of Josephine’s work. As Thomas, Joan’s only real friend in court, Adam Gillen proves to be the perfect foil. His desire to fit in, to escape convention only by pushing outwards from inside, leads to him suggesting that Joan’s forthrightness is a bit much. It’s the perfect allegory for differing attitudes to the struggles for LGBTQ+ equality in our time: neither approach is wrong, just different, and imposing one view on the other is destructive.

This all fits within a largely comedic first act in which Jolyon Coy’s Dauphin, bored as he awaits a change in the war that would allow him to move to Rheims and be crowned king, comes across as a French relative of Blackadder’s Lord Percy. His embrace of the young maid who insists that God tells them to lead his forces is as much to annoy his court of advisers as it is to secure victory.

As Joan heads to Orleans with an army that neither trusts nor believes in them, their biggest fight is to win them round. Their ability to bring the rest of France along with them is symbolised by dancers emerging from the Globe’s groundlings: a fabulous expression of queer joy that enables even the sternest, most patriarchal of men (distilled into Jonah Russell’s gruff Dunois) to come to see Joan as a true leader.

As Joan’s ascendence forms a joyous, dance-filled Act I, it is surely helped along by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s set, which curves the Globe’s wooden boards upwards to the vertical as it reaches the orchestra’s balcony. This allows for actors to make their entrances by sliding down (and, for the more athletic ones, to exit by running back up), creating a symbolic queering of the stage.

But a greater rise and fall comes in Joan’s own story, and in Act II, as the crowned Charles begins to resent Joan’s fanbase, the backlash kicks in. Josephine here gives Joan maybe a few too many declarative monologues – although within each there are nuggets to savour. As they are turned over to the English and tried by a court of clerics, their clarion calls against why they are being punished ring true.

And it’s here where I, Joan gets most direct about 21st century Britain. “Man tricked woman into hating trans”, Joan declares from the pit, looking up at the men in liturgical robes that happen to look like dresses. “The women are angry about pronouns and toilets and twitter and all the wrong things.” Amongst this, the story of Joan – a person who rejects labels as being too small, who rejoices instead of the other small words of “God”, “love”, especially “love” – is never lost or wasted, just reframed.

Like all great historical plays, I, Joan is as much about today as it is about then. Shakespeare took liberties with his historical figures to make points about life in his contemporary world; Shaw and others moulded Joan of Arc’s story to fit the narrative they wanted to tell. It is the prerogative of every playwright so to do, and Josephine does it magnificently.

For all the protestations of the tabloid-induced mob, I, Joan perhaps does more to turn Joan of Arc into an out-and-out hero than many other readings of the figure’s life. Whatever pronouns the character uses, Isobel Thom provides a blazing figure who burns with joy, with anger and with a true sense of feminism that is not afraid to destroy those who would wish to gatekeep the movement.

We need more Joans in this world. And we need I, Joan.

Continues until 22 October

The Reviews Hub Score

Blazing with queer joy

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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