Shakespeare’s Globe, London – until 22 October 2022
History wasn’t only written by the winners, but by the men on the winning side so what can it really tell us about the lives, experiences and identities of anyone else? That is the central debate in Charlie Josephine’s new play for the Globe Theatre, I, Joan, a re-examination not only of the supposed facts and assumptions made about Joan of Arc but also her subsequent presentation predominantly by male artists and writers who retrospectively project shape and meaning onto her story, replacing Joan’s voice with their own. An instrument of God called to rebalance the kingdom of France through war or a convenient peasant girl who outgrew her usefulness to the elite, Josephine’s play explores constructed, imposed and lived identities and the limitations of patriarchal vocabularies.
Of the many women in history, Joan of Arc probably offers the most fascinating opportunity to explore the fluidity of gender identity. Whether or not Joan actively questioned notions of gender or believed in gradations of identity we will never know, but the early criticism of the fictionalised I, Joan rather misses the point. This is not so much a speculation on whether Joan would have used a different pronoun but instead how the wider contemporary perceptions of Joan as a woman were a barrier to be overcome as well as a tool to confine and destroy her.
That Joan of Arc assumed and exhibited traits and behaviours that were seen as exclusively male – the desire to lead armies, to physically wage war, to receive and interpret God’s word and to adopt masculine dress – suggest a blurring of gender identity far beyond that exhibited by other powerful women in early modern history. Elizabeth I may have donned a breastplate at Tilbury and commended her kingly heart to the troops but much of her public image was predominantly feminised and chivalric in tone throughout her reign. But Joan, Josephine is suggesting, never appeared as anything except herself and that is the basis on which the character engages with the French court and with the audience.
And there are many interesting aspects to I, Joan that open out these concepts of performative identity and the fear of otherness that creates a conservative backlash against Joan as her fame and success grow. Josephine includes the rituals of dress more than once, moments in which the initially skirted Joan adopts a unisex boiler suit that matches the soldiers she leads, creating a uniformity and androgyny that is liberating – an act crucially perceived as Joan deliberately adopting masculine characteristics rather than an innate expression of self. Later, as the king grows jealous of her fame, powerful men try to push Joan back into the dresses that were forever abandoned, while even the Queen Mother lectures the veteran leader on more womanly ways to influence power.
Between these two markers of fortune, Joan grows in confidence, starting to question and embrace an identity that comes with, an albeit temporary, freedom to decide. It is here that Joan struggles against the imposition of inappropriate pronouns, rejecting ‘she’ for the more satisfying ‘they’, and Josephine repeatedly makes space within the play for Joan to have this conversation, to feel that they don’t fit and have the space to express the dissatisfaction with inadequate binary choices. As Henry V contemplates the burden of monarchy and power on the night before Agincourt, so does Joan stop to wonder what their identity means in the spaces between battles as the bodies pile up in the name of the cause – be it God, France or the wannabe King.
The body then becomes an important point of contention – as non-male bodies so often have – wondering who gets to own, name and make decisions about it. For all Joan’s liberty, they struggle initially with the physicality of the blood-soaked battlefield at Orléans, the destructive price of their inner destiny inflicted on the bodies of others. Later when Joan is tried, accused by the church of false prophesy, heresy and a kind of vanity in adopting men’s clothing, the force of patriarchal conformity and the boundaries placed around Joan’s apparent liberty feel even more constricting, demonstrating the illusory nature of their freedom and how quickly tolerance is replaced with fault when the hero falls from grace.
But Joan also expresses contention within their own body, a striving and dissatisfaction resulting from inaccurate and imposed gender assignment that physically contorts their own body. This is an under-developed aspect of I, Joan, although it is referenced several times, and there is a greater opportunity here to contrast the sword-point impact that Joan has on the bloodied and mutilated bodies of men left behind in her campaigning – arguably with the rank and file at least having as little control over the purpose of their own bodies as Joan does – and Joan’s own constrained physicality. Joan certainly becomes more arrogant as the successful campaigns pile up but there is no reflection on the human cost of that to someone who expresses such frustration with the confinement of their own body and the external controls pressed upon it.
That they are referred to as ‘girl’, ‘she’ or ‘maid’ by others throughout the play is pointed, a refusal from the men and women of the French court and army to engage with Joan’s right to self-determine, as well as a blinkered persistence that the world exists purely in black and white. Josephine extends this into consideration of the deficiencies of vocabulary, a repeated refrain throughout the play for Joan is the notion of feeling bigger than the tiny words invented by men allow. When they look at the star-splattered sky they don’t feel small but vast, a reference picked up again in the final portion of the play when the impassioned Joan prowls the audience in rallying monologue, descrying the constraints of tiny words like ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ that cannot contain the full meaning of a person while no combination of the alphabet has yet been invented to fully encapsulate them – a poetic and powerful moment that gets to the heart of Josephine’s interpretation.
It is a shame then, that so much of this interesting reconceptualisation of Joan takes place in a vastly overlong and tonally varied piece of drama, and while Josephine rejects the perspective of male writers who have shaped Joan’s legend in their own words, far too much of I, Joan relies on the structure of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan that proves repetitious and sometimes too hesitant in its stridency. There seems to be an informal rule at The Globe that no show should finish before 10.30pm and I, Joan suffers for it while there is a notable disconnection between the ferocious marketing poster that presages a gritty, warrior drama and the comic presentation of much of the production as design and directorial choices seek jaunty ways to entertain the audience.
These decisions undercut almost every serious scene in the play, pulling focus from the high-stakes religious and monarchical drama that makes the emotional pay offs difficult to justify. The physical staging is strikingly modern, and designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen has created a wooden arc that sweeps from gallery to stage with a urban skate-park feel giving the actors a semi-velodrome curvature that offers height and pace to the movement sequences that represent fighting or moments of emotional distress. In practice, however, director Ilinca Radulian larges uses it as a slide from the gallery and every time the actors slip down it, it evokes laughter from the audience.
And that is not always the response the scene demands. In a crucial scene after Orléans, Joan is troubled by the massacre around them, a weighty moment about the path God has seemingly chosen for Joan who has seen true battle for the first time and is grappling with a disconnection between the honorable notions of it and the ugly reality. Into that moment come several boiler-suited soldiers sliding down onto the stage in different positions, creating levity in what should be a grave and sober reflection. Likewise, when Joan is tried by the Bishops towards the end of the play, the impassioned refusal to accept their charges and the recognition that death will be the consequence is undermined by Jennifer Jackson’s shuffling choreography as the clergymen stutter and bumble around each other – a joke repeated several times before the scene’s conclusion.
And this tendency to waggishness happens again and again, the production opting to find a laugh rather than allowing any emotional complexity to ripple through the Globe audience. And some of that is very clever, the petulant King Charles leaving the winning and running of his campaign to his wife, mother-in-law and Joan is very funny but the balance isn’t quite right. I, Joan takes the subject of gender very seriously so the moments in which Joan reflects on that, often in monologue, are sensitive and engaging, but the rest of Joan’s identity – soldier, crusader, Christian – isn’t given equivalent importance. It means the tone wavers considerably across what is a vastly overlong piece, and while the audience really does invest in Joan, the broader emotional impact of her final sacrifice and betrayal just isn’t given the space it demands.
In their debut performance, Isobel Thom is an excellent Joan, playing well to the audience and making them confederate in Joan’s story. Commanding when they need to be, but also vulnerable, Thom’s Joan is driven and certain that God is speaking through them, but during the play learns to trust their own instincts when reading people and situations. It is a performance that grows across the production, building to an important rallying statement delivered on the ground among the people in which Thom electrifies the audience. But there is nuance in their Joan, subtle hints at arrogance and complacency, a quickness to dismiss the feelings and needs of others in the singular quest to fight on that the play could also delve into a little deeper. Joan may be certain but how faith in them quickly sours, how the perception of Joan goes from saviour to dangerous extremist needs more time.
Adam Gillen as Thomas, Joan’s chief supporter within the French court also develops across the show, becoming increasingly disillusioned with his royal master, an amusing Jolyon Coy who embraces all of the peevishness of King Charles, especially as his subject’s fame begins to outshine him but Charles’s determination to trust non-male voices against the advice of his courtiers is an interesting strand that could be better explained. There is good support from Debbie Korley and Janet Etuk as the powerful women who also try to impose gender compliance on Joan, even after they have proved themselves in battle, an important note about the sometimes unexpected sources of patriarchal control.
Josephine’s play shouldn’t be remotely controversial and its exploration of gender identity aligns pretty seamlessly with the known activities of Joan’s military endeavours, pushing at the meaning of assigned sex and the ways in which history has reduced and recorded different perspectives. But I, Joan has some more theatrical and dramatic questions to address about the balancing of gender with other identity markers in representing a complex life story.
I, Joan is at the Globe Theatre until 22 October with tickets from £5. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.
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