Review by Daz Gale
There’s more to the iconic Globe Theatre than Shakespeare and they are brought bang up to date with an ambitious retelling of Joan of Arc in the premiere of Charlie Josephine’s powerful play I, Joan. Since its initial announcement, it has created discussion (and, of course, discourse) over their decision to represent Joan as nonbinary with the pronouns They/Them. With a bold and unashamedly Queer storytelling approach, this was a show I was deeply excited about seeing, and couldn’t think of a better one to pop my Globe cherry, but did it live up to the hype?
The story of Joan of Arc has been retold countless times for hundreds of years. If you are not aware, Joan was a spiritual leader and defender of the Kingdom of France who was key in the coronation of King Charles VII of France. Her demise came as she was accused of heresy and blasphemy for wearing mens clothes where she was burned at the stake, aged just 19. I, Joan takes the basic premise of Joans story but uses imagination to build the world around her in an inventive use of storytelling.
The idea to contemporise Joans story with modern language and the use of They/Them pronouns is definitely a bold approach, but one that feels very much in keeping with Joan and their ideologies. Throughout, Joans struggle is witnessed as they battle with their identity, what they wear and what they should be called, with Joan visibly upset whenever they are referred to as “madam”.
The writing by Charlie Josephine is certainly admirable and has moments of brilliance, but can be inconsistent at times. Joan regularly gets to deliver captivating and connective monologues where they make powerful declarations including the incredible opening line “Trans people are sacred. We are the divine. We are practising our divinity by expressing authenticity” which sets the tone perfectly. While the audience response to these lines are palpable, at times it feels like it has been written purely to elicit a response rather than push the narrative forward at all. These lines are undoubtedly powerful and strike a chord, but the quick succession of them shows the story up for its flaws and how thin elements of the writing can be. When the writing is good, it is excellent, but its standard sadly dips regularly. There is a slight pacing problem too, with act one feeling overlong and like not much happens in the latter part of it. A much better second act fixes these issues, leading to a much more gripping and consistent watch.
Tonally, I, Joan is perplexing. A powerful story with a serious message that manages to be timely despite the events taking place 600 years ago. However, the tone moves from comedic to heart wrenching in quick succession which only goes to lessen the impact these more serious moments should have happened. While the play has been designed to evoke the spirit of Shakespeare at the Globe, the comedic moments sometimes veer too much into the extreme which risks the danger of lessening the serious message I, Joan hopes to convey.
Directed by Ilinca Radulian, the iconic Globe stage is adorned with a ramp that I could only compare to the wall in ‘Ninja Warrior’ (probably not the comparison they were expecting). While it is a unique touch, there is only so many times you can watch cast members run up the wall and slide back down before the novelty wears off. Elaborate choreography from Jennifer Jackson adds another unique element to the show, although the sudden emergence of the war dance in the act one is initially jarring and perhaps goes on for too long. Regardless, the intricacies of the movement during the dance numbers does make for a spectacle visually though some of the other movement, particularly during Joans trial at the culmination of act 2 bordered on farcical.
One of the strongest elements of this production are the fantastic cast. Stepping in to the iconic role of Joan is Isobel Thom, who is fittingly commanding as they lead the production. Displaying an impressive combination of vulnerability, determination and fearlessness, they perfectly encapsulate Joan and become the warrior they grow towards as the show progresses. Their ability to connect with everybody at the Globe extending past their fellow cast members on stage as they proved when they jumped off of it and mingled with the adoring audience members in one standout moment of the play.
Jolyon Coy is delightfully eccentric as Charles, even if at times it feels like he is in a completely different show, none more so than when he begins act 2 2 humping the stage in his underwear while declaring “F***, I’m sexy”. Adam Gillen is a highlight as the sweet natured Thomas while Janet Etuk shines in the brief moments she is on stage as Marie, alongside the scene-stealing powerhouse Debbie Korley portraying Yolande.
I, Joan is as brave a production as the iconic person it is centred around. Unashamedly queer and a great two fingers up to those who refuse to respect or even acknowledge different gender identities, this was an instance where I couldn’t help but get swept up in the audiences electric reaction. Rarely have I seen an audience connect with a piece as intensely as happened here – the atmosphere really was something special to behold, proven with a rapturous and seemingly never-ending standing ovation at the shows climax. I, Joan has obviously struck a chord with their audience which as a theatre-lover is all you could ever want.
For me personally, I couldn’t help but notice flaws in the way the story was portrayed and longed for a more cohesive approach in the storytelling. It’s strongest moments were Joans monologues where they declared some truly stirring statements, but overall I would have liked a more consistent tone. While nobel in its approach, the execution could have been better and though it isn't perfect by a long shot, it is still a thrilling night of theatre. At its heart, a joyous celebration of embracing your identity, it's hard not to put any personal criticisms aside and appreciate what they were attempting to do here and the important message they are sending out. For that alone, I, Joan should be commended.
I, Joan plays at Shakespeare’s Globe until October 22nd Tickets from https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/whats-on/joan-2022/
Photos by Helen Murray