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‘I, Joan’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
I, Joan, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2022
Photo by Helen Murray
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Charlie Josephine’s play is a joyous celebration of non-binary identity told aa tongue in cheek take on the story of Joan of Arc

Let’s be charitable to the armies of frothing armchair critics who declared war upon Charlie Josephine’s new play ‘I, Joan’ last month, weeks before any of them could possibly have seen it. Their ire was aroused by the news that the drama would depict noted French martyr Joan of Arc as non-binary. But much of the outrage seems to have been based on the mistaken assumption that it’s a deadly earnest attempt to revise the gender of the historical Joan.

As it happens, there is enough historical evidence out there to at least allow one to credibly shoot the breeze over the idea that crop-haired Hundred Years War warrior Joan – who was burnt at the stake 700 years ago for dressing as a man – might have conformed to some modern ideas of non-binary identity.

But Josephine’s largely joyous romp is about as much an earnest historical character study as the film ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’.

Beginning with impishly charismatic non-binary newcomer Isobel Thom – who plays Joan – monologuing away about how ‘trans people are divine’, Ilinca Radulian’s exuberant production presents the 17-year-old scourge of the English (and Burgundians, though they don’t get much of a look in here) as an ultra-liberated borderline hippy who refers to God as ‘she’, tells the entire male French establishment to remove the sticks from their derrières and leads their fabulous genderfluid troops into battle via what I can only describe as the medium of dancercise. 

It is camp as Christmas and knowingly so, with Thom’s Joan the archly anachronistic ringleader, Jolyon Coy on amusing form as bored, shambolic French king Charles XII, and the whole thing blessed with a delightful set from Naomi Kuyck-Cohen that’s basically one huge drop slide, with cast members plummetting vertiginously from the musicians’ gallery to endlessly entertaining effect. By the end, when Joan rails against the jury of stuffy English clergy who would judge them, it is extremely apparent that Josephine is having a pop at those who would question the validity of trans identities: it is absolutely not even slightly trying to earnestly imagine what Joan’s trial was actually like. It’s a giddy fantasy of Joan as a liberated non-binary icon, not a historical reenactment.

Indeed, at one point Joan actually calls out those who might quibble over the play’s lack of historical accuracy.

I have to say that I did have some quibbles about the play’s lack of historical accuracy. My problem, really, is that Josephine is so eager to depict Joan as a likeable modern figure that a lot of questions about their character and motivations remain awkwardly unresolved. Joan was a battle-hungry Catholic zealot who believed God spoke directly to her and was forever urging the French to attack more targets, faster. Thomas’s sassy Joan is absolutely not that person: they kick ass by speaking truth to power, not by kicking actual ass. It’s a fictionalised retelling. But this Joan is a version of the real Joan, and the only reason we’re talking about her gender seven centuries years later is because she kicked the crap out of the English. Josephine’s play is timid about depicting Joan as either a killer or a Catholic, and defaults to euphemistic scenes that suggest their success in battle came as a result of progressive values and general fabulousness. Fine, but it’s still a three-hour play about a military campaign; ultimately I can’t help but feel it could have asked more searching questions of Joan beyond their gender identity.

That doesn’t detract from the fact it’s a righteous and hugely watchable romp that zips along a treat. At the lengthy climax, an imprisoned but unbowed Joan merrily castigates the English clergy – and by clear extension, modern transphobes – for their close-minded judginess. It’s an exhilarating scene that I'd say could have made its points more eloquently in half the time. However, I’m just a jaded old cis guy – for many audience members, half an hour of Joan saying fuck you to the heteronormative establishment was clearly a joyous experience, and, frankly, fair enough. 

‘I, Joan’ is a gleeful celebration of non-binariness, grafted on to a tongue-in-cheek hop skip and a jump through the life and times of Joan of Arc. It’s hard to imagine hardcore gender-critical types getting converted by it, but it’s also hard to reconcile the larky, big-hearted reality of Josephine’s play with some of the more screeching reactions to it. At the end of the day, it’s not a lecture, it’s a party, and a bloody fun one at that.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Details

Address:
Price:
£5-£52. Runs 2hr 50min
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