I, Joan at Shakespeare’s Globe
Last night’s performance was preceded by an announcement: “There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the Queen’s dead…” – sentiment that would most likely have seen the speaker unburdened of their head if expressed at the Globe’s original incarnation! The bad news was we were about to sit though three hours of mediocre writing. Just kidding – it was that a cast member had been taken ill and would be replaced by another actor. Anyway, iconoclast flag flying mischievously, the show began.
I, Joan tells the story of Joan of Arc, the medieval peasant woman from 1400s France who, as a teenager, led her country to victory over the English during the 100 Years War because visions from God had told her to. She was championed by the Dauphin, ended up being burnt at the stake, and then canonised as patron saint of France. So far, so traditional, but this play reimagines her as a non-binary person.
Recent theatre school graduate Isobel Thom plays Joan with ecstatic pixie energy – possibly psychotic saint by way of charismatic eco-protestor at an illegal rave. She is a likeable presence and, like all the cast, gives her all to the performance. Jolyon Coy is brilliant as fussy man-baby, the would-be King Charles; Adam Gillen is heart-wrenchingly impassioned as Joan’s biggest ally, and there are star turns from all the ensemble. Ilinca Radulian’s production is lively, using Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s staging (curved wood like a skate ramp or the inside of an ark) to full effect. The cast are constantly scrambling up it and sliding down again, which is fun and dynamic, an original use of the space. Battle is symbolised through dance in Jennifer Jackson’s fresh choreography.
However, the play itself raises questions: is feminism secure or advanced enough for one of the handful of women who managed to raise themselves above the anonymous wash of patriarchal history at the service of men and their needs to have their name transformed into something else? Art is the place for exploration, and this theory is interesting, but maybe it does the real Joan a disservice to take her womanhood away from her? Maybe she wore men’s armour because they didn’t forge armour that accommodated tits?
Politics aside, it’s the quality of the writing that should be revisited. Charlie Josephine’s writing is mainly workmanlike: there is much exposition and repetition with little true poetry. A slam poetry-like soliloquy from Joan towards the end resonates touchingly with the audience, but the play as a whole doesn’t really deserve to be on Shakespeare’s stage, where all of life’s richness, strangeness and complexity are examined in language that didn’t exist before the playwright conjured it into being. This is more like a clarion call or lecture delivered as a play. There are interesting points made and there’s a place for militancy, but it lacks a beautiful, polished and apt command of language. Kudos to the Globe for taking risks – as it should – but this one asks much in terms of time invested and delivers too little genuine inspiration.
Photo: Helen Murray
I, Joan is at Shakespeare’s Globe from 20th September until 22nd October 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a trailer for the production here: