Relatively little is known about the real Joan of Arc. A female icon, the French heroine has had her story created from reports written by men, chiefly her court appearances in 1431 under trial for crimes including heresy, witchcraft and dressing as a man. Charlie Josephine has drawn on the fragments and myth to explore Joan’s story through a more modern understanding of gender and identity. The result is a gripping and entertaining historical play that also acts as a cry of protest, calling for society to embrace those who do not conform to traditional, conservative ideas of sex and gender.
It is clear from the outset that this is no classic retelling of Joan’s story. While recognising her importance as a champion of female power and the feminist struggle, the prologue declaimed by Isobel Thom’s Joan sets the stage for an unashamedly political piece of theatre about gender. Thom, a newcomer fresh out of drama school, is perfectly cast as the single-minded but questioning Joan as they become an unlikely leader of the French troops against the English. As the historical drama progresses at a thrilling pace, the play shows Joan exploring and questioning society’s labelling of them as a girl, leading to their realisation that they are non-binary, becoming “they” rather than “she”. The final court scenes remind us that gender politics are nothing new, with Joan attacked for breaking French sumptuary laws on who can wear what – laws that also existed in England until 1604. It argues that gender is not just something we identify within ourselves but also a response to the ideas of gender in the world around us.
The play is polemical at times, but it can also be very funny. Jolyon Coy leads the comedy as the childishly petulant French dauphin, later King Charles VII, who flounces and struts around the stage, lurching from defiance to solidarity with his wife Marie and mother-in-law Yolande – two powerful matriarchs played magnificently by Janet Etuk and Debbie Korley. Adam Gillen also stands out as Thomas, one of Charles’s counsellors who is inspired by Joan to confront his own confusion about his identity and place in society.
From battlefields to the court room, the cast regularly come together in stirring sequences impressively choreographed by movement director Jennifer Jackson. These are given added energy by the insistent rhythms of Laura Moody’s music, mostly percussive but boldly balanced by trombone and tuba, played by a live band led by musical director Joley Cragg. The Globe’s Elizabethan-style stage has been transformed by designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen with a striking curved backdrop, resembling a giant wooden skate ramp, that the cast clamber up and slide down.
Coming at a time when trans and non-binary people are under constant attack, Charlie Josephine’s play is a timely and topical reflection on gender through the frame of an historic figure whose story has been taken up by playwrights from Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw and Jean Anouilh. This latest version is not insisting that the real Joan of Arc identified as non-binary or even questioned gender, although there is no evidence that she didn’t. Her adoption of male attire while fighting alongside other soldiers suggests that she was aware of gender as something we perform, at a time when “cross-dressing” was seen as an abomination against God. It is this queer unconventionality that now makes her story so compelling as a starting-off point for exploring gender – a challenge that I, Joan takes up with intelligence and power.
I, Joan runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 22 October 2022. Tickets at shakespearesglobe.com.