The last few weeks have been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for I, Joan – and the show only opened last night! It sparked a debate not only about Joan of Arc’s identity, but the nature of using theatre to explore ideas in a physical format; without having seen the show, people had decided that it was sacrilegious, misogynistic, and inaccurate. But you and I know that you can’t judge something before you’ve seen it (or at the very least read the full text), and keeping an open mind is key.
The main argument seems to be that an historical woman is being erased – that’s simply not true, and on a number of levels. For one thing, this is a work of fiction and writers are entitled to their share of artistic licence (Shakespeare’s histories aren’t exactly fact-fests either, you know); history is, however, a movable feast – just like science, if new evidence is uncovered then the facts change. History can always be rewritten, so don’t get too comfy! The other thing to consider is that if someone relates to a certain figure and can perhaps see something of themselves in them, they have every right to explore that; it’s not dissimilar to re-gendering established roles, something that is widely accepted and applauded by theatregoers.
Let’s also consider Joan of Arc (or Jeanne d’Arc, La Pucelle) specifically. She has been widely adopted as a feminist icon, but the fact is there is no guarantee that she held any recognisably proto-feminist beliefs; her whole ‘thing’ was to subvert gender norms herself, not to create an environment in which other women could do the same – in that way she carved a niche that Queen Victoria and Margaret Thatcher (to name but two) followed in later years. Charlie Josephine’s play, however, does give Joan a feminist mantle; that is probably for the best, as the character would be pretty unbearable if focused solely on their religious and nationalist quest – it also speaks more to a modern audience, and makes more sense in the context of other creative choices in this play. Instead, Yolande and Marie occupy the space for powerful but non-feminist women, cynically using Joan to win more power but disregarding them as a person.
The play’s narrative covers Joan arriving at the Dauphin Charles’ camp, eventually convincing him of their visions and what it would mean for his status. After being subjected to an ecclesiastical trial (of sorts), Joan is deployed to Orléans to raise the siege, only to find more men who need persuading of their credibility – though once this is achieved, there is seemingly no end to their success. Whilst paving the way for Charles to be crowned king, Joan steadily discovers who they really are and feels confident to be true to themselves; like all good things, though, this could never last…
Whilst the play is mostly dialogue, Joan is afforded a few moments to share their thoughts with the audience alone; many of their monologues have the feel of a spoken word performance, which feels like a nice subtle link to the place in which their story is being told. That is just about the only subtlety in the show, with Joan’s motivations & intentions writ large throughout the piece. It is definitely a bit repetitive, with several sections of dialogue going round in circles (slightly ironic given that Joan is constantly telling people to hurry up), but nothing that couldn’t be reworked & trimmed down a bit. During these sections you feel every second of the 2h50 running time (even sat on a cushion, the Globe is mega-uncomfortable), so if there were to be any future life for this show it could do with some tightening up.
The use of movement and dance when Joan’s army heads off to fight is an excellent way of depicting the physicality & skill of the soldiers, plus it breaks up the wordier scenes and makes the audience feel more involved. Jennifer Jackson’s choreography is marvellously rough around the edges, each individual doing things their own way but still working cohesively with the rest of the group; it shows real spirit, and the backing from the band (Joley Cragg, Kiyomi Seed, Hannah Dilkes & Hanna Mbuya) injects real fire.
Movement and sound also combine in the trial scene, but this is slightly less successful – clearly there’s an attempt to reflect the absurdity of the Church’s laws in the jerky movements of the clergy, but it’s a bit too much of a shift in tone (considering how serious the situation is). What is enjoyable about this scene is that Joan gets their dignity back; in reality, Joan was deliberately confounded by the academics, and would probably have been a physical & mental wreck because of the conditions and uncertainty of the prison environment. In this version, their intelligence & spark is allowed to shine through.
The company mostly comprises the Henry VIII cast, though there are a few new faces – what a pair of productions to jump between! Jolyon Coy is excellent comedy value as Charles, and equally capable of tarnishing the Dauphin’s charm once his ambition is sated and no longer wants to support Joan. Adam Gillen shows sensitivity as Joan’s friend & ally Thomas, the only person at court who can truly understand their background, having been raised up “from the gutter” himself; it’s great to see a bit of intersectionality in this play, with the class divide joining the feminist & trans/non-binary core – we have to remember that none of these things exist in a vacuum.
Unsurprisingly, Isobel Thom is the heart and soul of the show. It’s a quite remarkable professional debut, juggling the outside noise and all the while trying to put together a production of a brand new play. Thom fills Joan with incredible energy and a naïve optimism that barely falters, sweeping the audience along on for an extraordinary adventure. Their relationship with the groundlings in particular really adds to the show, quickly drawing everyone in with a bit of cheekiness and a twinkle in their eye.
I may not have had the visceral reaction that Emilia provoked when that debuted four years ago, however you’d be a fool to ignore the response of an audience that probably contained quite a few Globe newbies; it’s clear that this play is having an effect already. Nobody would budge until they saw their Joan come and take one final bow, and the emotion in Thom’s face as they stood and took it all in was incredibly moving. And that’s the power of theatre.
My verdict? An important play that has already won over a legion of followers, in true Joan of Arc style – Isobel Thom makes an outstanding debut.
I, Joan runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 22 October 2022. Tickets are available online.