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Theatre review: I, Joan

07 October 2022

Susan Gray goes to the new play about St Joan at Shakespeare’s Globe

© Helen Murray

Isobel Thom as Joan in I, Joan

Isobel Thom as Joan in I, Joan

FOR a play that has attracted controversy through its use of pronouns, I, Joan is not primarily about words. The set, chorography, score, and laceration of the fourth wall by the lead, Isobel Thom, form the play’s lasting impressions. The speeches, sometimes in a rhyming beat style, sometimes competing with aircraft flying over the Globe’s open-air stage, rather fade away.

Thom’s professional debut is an engaging performance. They (preferred pronoun) first come on stage telling the audience they are “frightened”. This trepidation embraces both the responsibility of carrying the production, and the fate of St Joan, whose story we are about to see. Having won over the crowd, the mood swings upbeat, as Thom steps into character announcing “I’m Joan and this is my band.” Then an all-female percussion quartet strikes up a cabaret-style number. Set high up in the light wooden backdrop, the band is inset into a sheer wall that curves towards the ground, resembling a giant skatepark or Seville’s sculptural walkway known as “the Mushroom”.

Jolyon Coy’s convincing Dauphin is the centre of the first scene. In contrast to Joan, all his remarks are directed at his courtiers and concerned with his own pleasures. Boredom is his main woe, and his infantalising retainers will abase themselves in any way to keep him happy.

At first, the Dauphin’s confidant, Thomas, sensitively played by Adam Gillen, is dubious about admitting Joan to the court; but, as they offer an alternative to the regal melancholy, they are granted an audience. Joan takes the Dauphin into a private chamber off stage, and he emerges invigorated at the thought of repelling the English and becoming king. Later, in one of the work’s most reflective moments, Joan criticises Thomas for hiding his lowly class origins and true self to blend in — in other words, survive — at court. “Don’t you dare judge me!” the gentle, seasoned courtier flashes back.

Joan’s galvanising of Chinon’s foppish court into a fighting force is the most exhilarating section of I, Joan. Characters clamber on stage from the groundlings’ pit in anachronistic outfits of kilts and string vests or jumpsuits and beads, and dance behind Joan as if they were a giant Detroit soul group. Joan reflects on newfound power: “People are listening to me for the first time. Is this what it’s like to be a man?”

The first half concludes with Orleans reconquered, Charles crowned king, and Joan musing on the strength of a conviction coming from a divine presence that they call “she”. “Oh if we can just quiet the world for a moment. And listen within.”

The second half of I, Joan is when Joan’s prospects and the show’s pace fall apart. It opens with a scene-stealing performance from Coy’s Charles, throwing back his cloak and leading the court in celebratory rave in his underwear. The crown, so hard fought for, is tossed around and briefly lands on Joan’s head. But Joan’s plan to capture Paris is unappealing, in terms of effort and expense, to Charles.

© Helen MurrayThe full company in I, Joan

The king’s wife and mother-in-law, suavely played by Janet Etuk and Debbie Korley, suggest that Joan’s best chance of remaining in favour at court is to marry. Petticoats descend from the ceiling to suffocate Joan’s boiler-suited, non-binary self and challenge their earlier declaration “Queerness is magic.” Briefly, the stage’s backdrop becomes battlements as figures slide down and clamber up its sheer sides. But defying gravity can last for only so long. Joan’s fate starts coming into focus.

“Are you going to stand there while another queer woman is put to death?” asks Joan, directly addressing the audience. They have faced interrogation by senior figures of “the Church of England” (in 1428 France), dressed in black clericals and huge pectoral crosses. To emphasise, the questioning always turns on “why did you dress as man?” Laura Moody’s score turns into a metronome, and the clerics all revolve like clockwork cogs. As Joan faces their end, thick rope is looped around their waist to prefigure execution, they are mindful of their legacy, defying critics to give them a star rating as critics could never capture “a supernova like me”.

Charlie Josephine’s retelling of St Joan’s martyrdom is a sound vehicle for raising questions about identity, and the countless individuals and groups driven out of history because they did not conform. Trans rights gain visibility through the lens of a familiar story. But the play falters in its portrayal of relationships and does not live up to Peter Brook’s notion of making us believe in the personal dynamics shown on stage, and their existence beyond the length of the piece.

The relationships in I, Joan had the sense of existing no earlier than the five-minute call or later than the stage lights’ going dark. Joan’s relationship with God felt constrained, the mainspring for the plot rather than an eternal, guiding presence. I, Joan underscores the parallels between faith and campaigning, and their capacity to drive acts of courage and personal sacrifice, but it lacks delineation of the eternal nature of religious belief as contrasted with campaigning’s transactional one.

At Shakespeare’s Globe, Bankside,
London SE1, until 22 October. Box office: phone 020 7401 9919. www.shakespearesglobe.com/whats-on/joan-2022/

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