“People think I’m a girl(…)but I’m not.”
BY FAY BARRETT
“Trans people are sacred. (…) Queerness is magic. We are beautiful, and powerful and for that we are killed.”
So begins Charlie Josephine’s sexy, sweaty, beautiful, raw retelling of Joan of Arc. I, Joan, brilliantly directed by Ilinca Radulian, plays at Shakespeare’s Globe until 22 October. Penned by a non-binary writer and performed by a non-binary lead actor, it’s an epic event not to be missed, particularly if you’re gender diverse and have ever wanted to see yourself not just reflected but celebrated on a mainstream stage.
The choice to make Joan non-binary has been slated in some quarters but, when you think about it, it makes absolute sense. Fifteenth Century Joan dressed as a man, led the French army to victory over the English and was burnt at the stake largely for the heresy of gender non-conforming.
The acting is extraordinary, the writing cutting edge and the relationship between audience and actor pure magic. It’s the kind of electric experience I imagine Shakespeare’s audience had. Like Shakespeare, Josephine’s writing is of and for its audience. It’s relevant, brutal and brimming with a truth gender diverse folks are often silenced from speaking. And yet, here we are, sitting in the Wooden O, an apex of British culture, with our Joan talking to us, saying:
“People think I’m a girl (…) If you looked at me and saw my body, you’d see the body of a girl so you’d probably assume I’m a girl too, but I’m not!”
It’s like a hall of mirrors with actor, character and audiences’ experience reflected back at each other.
The play bursts with such moments. Most touchingly when Joan struggles to find a way of describing themself. “Girl” has never felt right:
“I am wordless. It’s lonely not having language.”
To which the character Thomas responds, “Maybe your word has just not been written yet”.
Not for the last time, an electricity of recognition rippled through the audience.
It reached fever pitch when Joan was called “them” for the first time. Joan was seen. And so were we, the gender diverse audience.
Isobel Thom plays Joan. They are an extraordinary actor. Right from the start, when Thom gleefully slides onto the stage (oh yeah, the entire back wall is a slide, you will want to have a go) they build an easy rapport with their audience. Initially pixie-esq, brimming with a childlike optimism, Thom’s Joan takes us through a magnitude of emotions. It’s a supremely physical, emotionally demanding performance. Insanely brilliant when you consider Thom has only just left drama school. They are the perfect vessel for Josephine’s Joan.
The rest of the cast are equally impressive. The stage is peppered with incredible women. Janet Etuk and Debbie Korley bring an exquisite blend of grace, power, and manipulation to their roles of Marie and Yolande. It’s clear who’s the real power behind the throne. Lady Macbeth would be proud.
Compared to the women, the male characters often appear weak and simpering. The actors playing them, however, are anything but. There’s an incredible range of acting chops on view, notably Adam Gillen who takes us on an emotional rollercoaster almost rivalling Joan’s.
Jolyon Coy delighted as the oafish Boris Johnson-esq Charles. The vision of him dancing around the stage in his pants shouting, “I’m the king” left me with an unfortunate image of what might have happened behind closed doors at Downing Street.
I loved Joan’s “army”. A ragtag group of actors who climbed onto the stage as if they were groundlings joining the action. Which is plausible, given they were dressed like they were sauntering back from a night out in Soho. Gazing down on the yard (the area where the groundlings stand) I doubt this theatre has ever seen such a gorgeous tapestry of abundant queerness.
The power of the piece is in the text. The way Josephine communicates the trans/enby experience through a mix of the modern and the historical. There’s a nod to classical verse.
It pulses with a subtle beat, more street vibe than iambic pentameter.
This play is a celebration, a rallying call to the beautiful, marginalised gender diverse. It’s the perfect antidote to the trolling and media spin faced by the trans community. Six hundred years on and, like Joan, we’re still persecuted for living our truth. We need this play.
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