Some conservative doubts may have been expressed about the Globe’s planned production of I, Joan (see Philip Fisher's feature Is Joan of Arc a They/Them?), but the audience at the press night performance clearly didn't share them to judge by their enthusiastic response.
As if speaking to us about those doubts, Isobel Thom, who engagingly performs the part of Joan, strolls onto the stage and in a short prologue says, “trans people are sacred and… queerness is magic.” The cheers and applause from the audience that followed suggest most of them had some familiarity and disagreement with those doubts.
Charlie Josephine’s story of Joan shifts the emphasis away from such themes as religion, war and the struggle to free the French people from the tyranny of the English invaders. Instead, it generally follows, often playfully in contemporary language, the traditional sequence of Joan’s journey, paying attention to its gender implications.
The opening scene following the prologue takes us to the court of Charles (Jolyon Coy), a bored, restless ruler prodding his advisors about what he should do. Into the mix comes a request from Joan via a court aide to meet Charles. He and all but one of his aides reject the idea, but the exception of Thomas (Adam Gillen) whom Charles particularly favours suggests the meeting should take place, and it does.
Of course, he can’t just accept that Joan leads his troops into battle to relieve the besieged town of Orléans. He first has her examined by men who, as they carry out their task, speak about Joan rather than to her.
Not long after this, Joan tells Thomas that, “to be born in a female body is to be at war every day. Why put me in this body.”
Such thoughts, such worries are only spoken to Thomas. Joan leads the army with optimism. Gathering recruits from the audience, Joan tells them and the soldiers of their coming fight to relieve Orleans, “I am here to lead you,” and, echoing for us that catchphrase of President Obama, says, “yes you can... yes you will.” Their march into battle turns into a collective joyful dance. Joan's objective is, “freedom for the people by the people.”
Success brings more court confidence in Joan’s ability to lead, but for Joan, there are still doubts and niggling irritations about the way others respond. A man says, “I know it must be frustrating sometimes being a woman,” to which a woman instantly responds, “no you don’t” and gets a massive cheer from the audience.
Joan later privately admits to Thomas that the word “woman seems to be the wrong word... I don’t fit,” to which he replies that, “maybe your word hasn’t been written yet.” Indeed, history books prefer to write about people in simple gender binary terms. Variations have been mostly hidden.
They both recognise that the existing society is flawed, but disagree about the way it should be changed. Thomas reckons you should “play their game and get powerful enough to...”. For him, it is a matter of achieving peace in the country. “No,” Joan insists, it should be for “justice when we have a revolution.”
There will be a break with Charles for both of them. The threat to the court that Joan’s radicalism could bring isn’t lost on Charles and those around him. Thomas rejects the King’s betrayal of Joan and walks away from the court. For Joan, there will be capture by the English, trial by robotic clergy and the unofficial horrors of a prisoner where “men come into my cell every night and abuse me”.
Even so, the play is given an upbeat finish and there will be an angry self-identification in the voice of the 21st century of “working class queerness.”
Maybe this version of Joan’s history isn’t quite what happened. The same can be said of all the other dramatic versions. But what Charlie Josephine’s play does do is help us understand a bit more the contemporary world and the power we have to shape it differently.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna