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Warrior, sinner, martyr, saint, woman: queer theatre outfit the Rabble offer a fiercely feminist interpretation of one of history’s most divisive heroines
Voice – its power and its absence – is key to this work by The Rabble, an independent Melbourne theatre company known for taking classic texts including Frankenstein, The Story of O and Cain and Abel and exploring them through a queer, feminist lens.
Their latest work, Joan, opens with a thin white spotlight. It begins to scan the stage, as if searching. Two enormous eyes appear, projected onto scrims at the front and back of the stage, keeping watch. A mouth gapes open, crying out in silence. Through a faint soundscape of quiet evening, there is one sound that is unmistakable: the soft crackle of fire.
Joan of Arc was a teenager when God first started to speak to her, through three saints. The voices told her that she would lead France into victory in the Hundred Years War. She was an illiterate peasant woman when the French monarchy adopted in 1429 as God’s chosen mascot in war. Adored by the French people, she was nevertheless abandoned by the Monarchy after being captured by the English on the battlefield – and subsequently tried for heresy, crossdressing and witchcraft. She was burned at the stake twice.
Joan’s story has been told countless times, in poems, history books, plays, films and songs. All of this information in these accounts is secondhand;the only historical record we have of Joan is the transcript from her trial, written by the men who sentenced her to death. This is a woman whose story is swathed in myth, and whose voice has been misinterpreted, condemned, removed and re-appropriated.
The first act of Joan finds four women – Luisa Hastings Edge, Emily Milledge, Dana Miltins and Nikki Shiels – moving in and out of shards of white light. At first, they seem like facets of one person; a open palm receiving God’s grace, knees falling to the floor in gratitude and submission (or fear?). The movement becomes more urgent, until we’re finally left with just one Joan (Hastings Edge), her trembling face projected behind her in black and white, the angle directly referencing Carl Theodor Dreyer’s influential 1922 film The Passion of Joan of Arc.
The synchronicity of lighting, sound, set design and movement in this opening scene is characteristic of a theatrical language that co-founders Kate Davis and Emma Valente have been developing for over a decade now. The pair start with design, and come to a finished piece of work by a process of collaborative devising and improvisation.
Joan might be The Rabble’s most visually stunning and cohesive work yet. There are four Joans – after all, grasping at a single, true representation of her would be impossible – and each feels like her own person, rather than four actors playing the same role. Together, they doggedly move towards their inevitable end, sometimes playing the role of violator, other times of friend. Joan’s trials become more difficult and disturbing, and the threat of fire feels ever-present (at one point, one Joan [Miltins] repeatedly throws herself at a pyre while another [Milledge] pushes her relentlessly). But as in the Rabble’s previous work, some of the most unnerving and powerful moments are reached through a slow, nearly unbearable rise in tension, with more than a hint of body horror: a lighter held up to a hand, two fingers rising up a thigh, a cigar forced into a woman’s mouth. It’s incredibly sophisticated storytelling, and utterly compelling.
But there is another quality to the scenes that make them even more disturbing. We live, as Joan did, within a patriarchy. As the four Joans move towards their unimaginable fate, one Joan (Shiels), camera poised at her face, becomes aware that she is acutely watched. Another Joan (Milledge) is shown that virginity makes her sacred and that her body must be policed; then, she is told that her voice and her views might not really be her own. And when the Joans reach a position of power, they are feared, ridiculed and torn down. As women today, are our experiences so different?
This attempt at direct empathy with the Maid of Orléans is more explicit in the final act, which is comprised of a monologue (or more accurately, spoken word poetry) apiece by each woman. It feels important that Joan is finally given a voice of her own; a chance to ask – demand – that after all these centuries of myths and stories, we shut up and listen. Not all of these monologues are entirely successful (Hastings Edge’s feels somewhat removed in tone to the rest) but what unites them is a sense of defiance. “Here we stand on the ashes of women who spoke,” says Shiels.
Perhaps this is the Rabble’s greatest triumph: they are not claiming to understand the French heroine and represent her faithfully. Rather, they are interrogating Joan’s place in western culture, and questioning how much more progressive Joan’s world really is to our own. The result is a searingly relevant piece of work that urges us to stand up, make our voices heard and remember those who came before.