When Charlie Josephine’s play re-imagining Joan of Arc as transgender was first announced, it was condemned, unseen and unread, as an appropriation of an iconic female story. Experienced live, it strikes me as an expansive, unifying and overall joyful piece of work - baggy at times but too subtle for a hot culture-war take.
It features an astonishing, star-making professional debut from non-binary actor Isobel Thom as a goofy, charismatic Joan, at the head of a tight ensemble. Ilinca Radulian’s production deftly fuses text, music, movement and design, and exploits the unique dynamic at the Globe between actor and audience. Overall, it feels like a bit of a game-changer.
Josephine pulls off an extraordinary balancing act. This is a funny play that delves into profound issues of identity and belief. The language is modern and poetically slangy, but with a 15th-century vibe. The tone is arch but Josephine takes seriously the divine inspiration that drove a peasant girl – at the start, Joan identifies as female – to take up arms against English occupiers and see Charles VII of France crowned.
When Joan chats to us they’re conversing with God. To have a female body in a man’s world is to be constantly at war, they say. If you don’t feel comfortable in that body, it’s civil war. Their holy mission is driven by exuberance, though. Human society, and its constricting terminology, is just too small for this compelling Joan.
Thom begins the play alone on stage with a stirring speech about tolerance and love and pre-empts Joan’s martyrdom with another about intolerance and stupidity, delivered as they mingle with the audience. Thom has an easy, charming, sometimes flirty rapport with us spectators, and steals the show. But only with the willing connivance of a strong supporting cast. Jolyon Coy is a spectacularly feckless Charles, Adam Gillen spirited as Thomas, Joan’s fellow-outsider at court and in life. There are nice, acidic turns too from Janet Etuk and Debbie Korley as Charles’s weary wife and mother-in-law.
Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s set looks like something out of a skate park – a stage-wide slide of laminated wood bottoming out into a flat floor. Thom swoops down it to deliver their opening speech and thereafter actors swish down or clamber up it to signify military defeat or victory: or, hilariously, to interrupt Joan’s meditations on gender. Battles are expressed – brilliantly but lengthily – through Jennifer Jackson’s clubby choreography set to Laura Moody’s live score for brass instruments and metallic percussion.
The pace slows in the second half. The tone gets more discursive and Joan’s trial by 42 clerics, twittering like angry penguins, becomes repetitive until their galvanizing breakout speech. Radulian could usefully have trimmed the nearly three-hour running time by 20 minutes or so. Yet for all that, this is a thrilling piece of theatre – a new take on the story that doesn’t invalidate any past or future versions of Joan, or sideline women in any way.
Shakespeare’s Globe, to October 22; buy tickets here