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I, Joan’s non-binary heroine deserved better than such a poorly executed play

The i 9/5/2022 Alexandra-pollard
Caption: The cast of Shakespeare's Globe's production I, Joan in rehearsals (Photo: Helen Murray) © Provided by The i Caption: The cast of Shakespeare's Globe's production I, Joan in rehearsals (Photo: Helen Murray)

“Let me be clear”, says Joan of Arc at Shakespeare’s Globe, played by the non-binary actor Isobel Thom. “I love girls… There’s nothin’ wrong with being a girl. Except if you’re not.”

Charlie Josephine’s script for I, Joan is full of these moments, clap-backs to the “gender-critical” feminists who have accused this new play of reappropriating one of Europe’s boldest female role models for the gender-neutral team.

Joan of Arc was a peasant girl who led men into battle; in medieval France, this made her an aberration not just in terms of gender, but of class. When the trailer for I, Joan launched earlier this summer, it told us this Joan would be presented as a figure who understood themselves as non-binary. To non-binary people, this felt like a welcome way of looking afresh at their occluded presence in history; to some women, this felt like a statement that a historical figure who achieved success and wore trousers couldn’t be appreciated as a woman.

Rage swirled on social media. No wonder Josephine’s text tries to shout back. “Man tricked woman into hating trans,” says Joan. “The women are angry about pronouns and toilets and Twitter and all the wrong things.” Lines like this make the case that we’re all on the same side against the patriarchy, and there will be many members of the audience, cheering and chanting along to Joan’s mantras, for whom they offer moments of profoundly moving inclusion.

The problem with the summer maelstrom was that none of the participants had actually seen the play, which only opened this week. Fewer seemed prepared to go with an open mind. As someone who’s written about Shakespeare’s Globe for years, and worked with the in-house team of superb scholars, I went in with every confidence that they could offer us something thoughtful. It’s not just the gender politics that are topical. There could be no better moment than the era of Greta Thunberg to ask ourselves why we turn to child prophets in times of crisis.

Theatre, as several statements from The Globe have pointed out, is a place for experimenting with new ideas. Stories exist to be retold by new generations with new concerns, and Joan’s story has been told from a female perspective hundreds of times over. Jean Anouilh’s play about Joan, L’Allouette, drew parallels with French resistance to Nazi occupation. Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan was a tragedy of blinkered human beings wedded to competing ideologies – Gemma Arterton, a cis woman, played the title role at the Donmar Warehouse as recently as 2016.

So even if you’re not entirely sure what it means to be “non-binary”, and even if you’re troubled by the idea that France’s most successful female warrior must somehow have rejected her sex, there’s something insecure about suggesting that a writer and a lead actor who both understand themselves as non-binary don’t deserve their own turn at imagining Joan of Arc as someone to whom they relate.

Yet the weakness of I, Joan isn’t that it presents a non-binary warrior; it’s that it’s poorly executed. If you promise people new, theatrically nuanced ways of exploring sex and gender, you need to deliver on that nuance. I, Joan is raucous, energetic and crude. A bit of bombast has always worked well at the outdoor arena for which Shakespeare’s Globe is best known: this is the space where, since 1599, people have swigged their drinks, cheered their fan-favourites and sung along to popular chants. But this feels more like a call-and-response rally than a play about life and death. After you’ve watched the French defeat the English through the medium of street dance, Joan’s eventual discovery that war involves blood and brutality adds too little realism, too late.

Throughout I, Joan, Joan begins to explore masculine performance as a necessary element of military leadership – before later moving towards an understanding of themself as non-binary in modern terms. There’s powerful stuff about the limitations of language to capture gender – “Your words don’t fit… Twenty six letters lassooed again and again and still nowhere near capturing me” – even as they offer the language of the body as an alternative alphabet for self-expression.

But the only two named female characters are handmaidens of the patriarchy, scheming wickedly against Joan as they conspire to force them into pink frilly dresses and motherhood. Meanwhile, Joan’s rising understanding of themself as a non-binary martyr is tied intrinsically to their persecution for wearing male attire. There’s no model here for a woman who might wear trousers, disrupt the patriarchy, and still understand herself as female – and thus no effort to show why Joan, as a non-binary person, is importantly different.

There is a place for art as manifesto; it’s not the job of every writer to win round those who reject their starting principles. I, Joan shines when it shows us glimpses of Joan’s relationship with God – taking its place in a great artistic tradition which has long framed queer people as having unique perspectives on divine mystery. But too often, it simply doesn’t deliver as theatre. We should give the next non-binary Joan a chance to do it better.

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