I, Joan at Shakespeare's Globe – review
Charlie Josephine's play reimagines the story of Joan of Arc
Before this new play had even been performed at the Globe, it had elicited significant ire online over its planned depiction of French saint and martyr Joan of Arc as non-binary. On its opening night, it provoked similarly strong reactions in its audience, who cheered for Joan's gender-affirming clothing, recoiled when they were misgendered and roared in support of their defiance. As an uprising unfolds onstage, so too does it incite a rebellion in its attendees, igniting the kind of passion theatremakers surely dream of. How long has it been since we have witnessed a piece of theatre that could be described as genuinely revolutionary? Perhaps this Joan is a hero we too have been waiting for.
This historical reimagining comes courtesy of writer Charlie Josephine who chronicles Joan's life from their arrival in the court of the ostracised Prince Charles to their eventual demise at the hands of English captors. The first act simmers with queer rebellion which ultimately bubbles over into riotous euphoria and, in breaths between its plot points, affords Joan the necessary space to explore their gender identity. The play is wilfully anachronistic, about as accurate as Shakespeare's own histories and similarly intentioned. This, coupled with its effective use of music and fluid mixture of comedy and tragedy, make it a perfect fit for a venue famed for its anarchic perspectives on gender.
Naomi Kuyck-Choen's design sees the iconic stage augmented with a wood-panelled quarter pipe up and down which the ensemble cast propel themselves, much to the crowd's delight. Not since 2012 have gymnastic feats been spectated in London with such aplomb. There is, perhaps, metaphorical value too in a towering wall not so easily scaled.
Isobel Thom makes a staggering debut as Joan, all barnstorming speeches and youthful determination that crumble as they struggle against the confines of a limited 15th-century vocabulary for a self-descriptor. It is their opening invocation that prompts such vocal responses from the audience throughout, harkening back to a gleefully unruly Globe long before the dawn of ‘theatre etiquette'. There is excellent support, too, from Adam Gillen's devoted Thomas, Jolyon Coy's foppish Charles and Debbie Korley's imperious Yolande, a total boss in mint.
Also, key to the play's success is director Ilinca Radulian who has staged it with both tremendous style and exuberant, individualistic flair. Though the means of depicting combat may prove divisive – a fusion of queer contemporary dance and Zumba that seemingly liberates the French through authentic self-expression, it is also ingenious.
A few years after Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's Olivier Award-winning Emilia exploded onto the same stage, I, Joan bears a similarity in its fervour, its inclusivity and its unapologetic authenticity. A factual biopic it is not and yet, in spite of its fervent detractors, Joan's relationship with gendered clothing some six hundred years ago seems justification enough for this socially modernised interpretation. Furthermore, the fact that boisterous queer theatre such as this is being seen in a prestigious venue feels strikingly important. Given this opportunity and, pivotally, this platform, Joan and their army may yet conquer more than just feudal France.