‘II always crave historic queer representation,” says Charlie Joséphine, the non-binary playwright of I, Joan, a sweaty, heady, gleefully queer new drama about France’s patron saint. “Because our history has been erased – especially that of transgender people – there is very little documentation of us throughout history, even though we have been around since the dawn of time.”
I, Joan, which has just opened at the Globe Theater in London, immerses us in the life of 17-year-old Joan of Arc, the 15th-century peasant teenager who claimed to have been divinely chosen to lead the French army during the hundred years of war. With limited surviving records from medieval France, there are details about Joan’s life that we will never know for sure. This makes her story ripe for reconsideration and – for Josephine – recovery.
I, Joan, directed by Ilinca Radulian, portrays Joan as non-binary. They are seen fighting first for an audience with the future king, then later on the fields of France – but they are also simultaneously fighting against a society where their identity puts them in extreme danger. Joan wore men’s clothes, had short hair, and took up arms. But gender is rooted much deeper than these external signifiers, which can be challenged by the practicalities of surviving the Middle Ages. For Josephine, writing Joan as non-binary felt both obvious and natural. “I could have written this piece as a cis woman, feminist and passionate about the idea of expressing myself in this way,” says Josephine, dismissing the idea. “But the more I read about Joan, the more I think they are what we would now call non-binary or trans.”
In Josephine’s imagination, the character’s struggle with gender is inextricably linked to her divinity. “My understanding of Joan’s God is that it’s an internal instinct, almost instinctive,” explains Josephine, who points to the transcript of Joan’s trial, the main source of Joan’s own voice: asks again and again why they wear men’s clothes.. And again and again, Joan says, ‘Because God guided me to.’ »
It was this trial that ultimately led to Jeanne being burned at the stake for heresy. “It seemed like it wasn’t a casual fashion statement that Joan chose death. It was considered both a sin and a crime to present as they did. They knew the risk and they chose it. For me, it is a deep need. Joan’s queerness, Josephine suggests, is like those messages from God: a command, an insistence, a necessity. “I couldn’t read this as anything other than a trans experience.”
News of the character’s non-binary character sparked immediate outrage online, with attacks on the cast, crew, and the very idea that a historical figure’s identity could be re-examined in art. “Everything was quite predictable,” says Josephine. “Personally, I know this kind of abuse very well. None of this was surprising. But we haven’t paid too much attention to it, because we have a job to do. As we speak, the show is starting to come together. “This piece was made with so much care and love. It takes real courage on the part of the actors. I think they have enough on their plate without thinking about all that.
However, some of the backlash caught Josephine by surprise. “I forgot that I was blaspheming a saint!” they say, laughing, their hands raised to their heads and almost forming a halo. When first considering how to write the play, they add, Joan’s devotion proved a challenge. “I’m not a religious person and most of our audience won’t be,” Josephine says. “I was like, ‘How am I going to make God exciting for a non-denominational audience in 2022? How am I going to make this accessible? »
Josephine found the answer by delving into the complexities of Joan’s Catholicism and exploring how a working-class background may have stood in the way of the religion’s traditional hierarchies. This child who grew up in a peasant family would not have understood the Latin spoken in church. “They couldn’t read or write,” says Josephine, “but they had to go to church to listen to a guy speak in Latin, and be told that’s how you experience God. . Joan experienced God walking in the fields with nature, hearing their own expression.
In the piece, the vehicle for this expression is dance, the use of movement resulting from the failure of language. Reconsidering gender through a historical lens, says Josephine, always poses the question of finding the right words. “The language we have now, Joan didn’t have then. There’s violence in there, I think. Not having the words to explain yourself is a truly terrifying thing.
So, in the absence of adequate language, there is an abundance of global movement. The entire show is vividly written and corporeal, with each battle told through dance, choreographed by Jennifer Jackson. “I really didn’t want to do lame sword fights,” says Josephine. “With the war, I wanted it to be on the body, to remind us of the humans in it. It’s a funny message too. It was important that the body was front and center.”
The epic space of the Globe requires that kinetic energy, argues the playwright, that riot of motion from Joan’s battles, bullies, and divinely inspired moments. With £5 tickets to the Groundlings, they hope the show will invite a whole new audience to hear this story of a historic working-class hero, told here in a non-binary way, transforming the Globe into a space for dancing and of celebration. “Half the audience is on their feet as if they were at a concert,” says Josephine. “They can literally leave if they’re bored. There are planes and pigeons and it’s going to rain. It’s visceral and immediate. If all goes according to plan, they say, the show should be “punk and bubbly.”
The size of the theater also allowed them to be brave in their writing. “I wanted to dare to write epic speeches and be aware of the sky in this space,” Josephine smiles. “We have the budget for the horses, but that would have really overshadowed my writing.”
The divinely chosen teenager is played by non-binary actor Isobel Thom, a recent graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. “They graduated five minutes ago,” Josephine laughs. “They are incredible, a smart, passionate and courageous actor. I don’t know if I could do what they do, certainly at this point in their career, but also at this point in their life.
In response to the online attacks, Thom tweeted: “Joan is an icon to so many people, of all genders, but holds such special meaning for women / afab [assigned female at birth] people […] No one takes away the historical Jeanne from you. No one takes your Jeanne away from you, no matter what Jeanne may mean to you […] this show is art: it’s exploration, it’s imagination.
Few artists have to deal with such an onslaught of abuse on their professional debut. But this production was never intended to arouse controversy. In I, Joan, the strangeness of the protagonist is an essential part of who the character is, a central part of the story. It’s clear from the script and Josephine’s enthusiasm that the very bones of this production vibrate with pride, joy and queer community. “It’s a joyful thing to be queer,” they say, smiling. “It’s a beautiful thing to be trans.”
Historical theater will always be interpretive, by its very nature. “It’s not historically accurate — if we compare it to history books written by white, cis, straight, middle-class, middle-aged men,” Josephine says. “But I think it’s important to ask where we get our information from.” They’re not trying to tell a naturalistic story: there’s so much movement here, after all, with drummers, dancers and direct addresses. “There is unlimited expansion in art. Exactly. It’s not a museum. It’s poetry and play and asking all the big simulation questions.
What if this was the story of a non-conforming warrior who, if alive today, might hear the word non-binary and feel it fit? What if it was told on a stage that played with history, reinvented it and re-examined it – and considered our motivations for staging the past? “There’s enough space for all of us,” Josephine said, leaning back in their chair, sure of herself and their sight. “For those who want to see Joan as a strong young feminist woman, they can always see Joan like that. For those who crave this new exploration of Joan, this piece is exciting. Nothing is removed, only expanded.