Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for having assumed an identity – as a military leader, as a divine intermediary – which the Christian patriarchate strongly disapproved of. Now, nearly 600 years later, this historic figure is causing outrage again. Only this time, it’s not Joan’s claim to hear the voice of God that is in contention. They are the pronouns of Joan.
The new play by playwright Charlie Josephine I, Joan, which opens tomorrow night at Shakespeare’s Globe, depicts the patron saint of France as a non-binary person, shown in the artwork wearing a binder. The backlash was swift and fiery, both on social media and in sections of the press.
“It didn’t surprise me,” says Josephine, who identifies as non-binary. “It’s something the Shakespeare’s Globe team was really prepared for.” However, not many new shows have been overtaken by a social media storm of this magnitude, before they’ve even opened. Prominent voices including Ann Widdecombe, MP Rosie Duffield and Women’s Equality Party leader Sophie Walker have all spoken out against the show on Twitter. None of them have seen or read it yet.
Much of the criticism of I, Joan has centered on the idea that a famous heroine is wiped from the annals of history, when there are few precious women with an agency who write the pages of history books. But what these arguments lack, says Josephine, is that it is a work of fiction: a work of art, which explores a possibility.
“For those who want to see Joan as a strong feminist woman, they still can,” says the writer. “And for those interested in a new performance, they can come and see the show. There is room for all of us “.
Furthermore, women aren’t the only ones who are underrepresented in the stories we tell about the past. “There have been non-binary, trans or gender nonconforming people since the beginning of time,” says Josephine. “And our history has been erased. The violence of that is hard to swallow at times. “
Yes, no one in medieval France knew the word “non-binary”. But theater routinely dispenses with historical accuracy as a way to get old stories to sing in new ways, to new audiences, whether it’s simply the use of modern clothing, or the casting of women in traditionally male roles, both through colorblind casting.
Josephine’s new play fits into Shakespeare’s Globe’s broader approach, directed by artistic director Michelle Terry, to question the norms of the past. “Art can be as powerful as a way to change minds,” says Josephine. “Put a non-binary person in center stage and we will hear the game through them. If I’ve done my job right, you’ll feel what it’s like to be Joan. “
Josephine was inspired by much research on the story of Joan of Arc. “In Joan’s trial, they made it clear that dressing as a man was both a mortal and illegal sin, and that the punishment for it would be death. Still, Joan chose to dress that way. As a trans person, I really relate to that deep need to be true to yourself.
Instead of directly telling a family story, Io, Joan is a work that is divided between past and present. “I wanted to write a play with one foot in medieval France and one foot in 2022,” says Josephine. “The language of comedy jumps between these two spaces”.
Consequently, this Joan behaves like a modern teenager, not the blank-faced plaster saint of historical representations. “I was thinking a lot about Billie Eilish when I was writing this play,” says Josephine. “He got this inspiration through her in her bedroom, making songs with her brother, and then suddenly he’s on huge stadium tours.”
Thinking of Joan as an artist also helps to make sense of the character, in a much less religious era: “For a modern audience, talking about the inspiration we get is the closest thing to talking about God.”
As an illiterate peasant woman excluded from inaccessible Latin religious services, Joan developed an intensely personal version of the religion that was terrifying to the English religious authorities. And likewise, Josephine says that “a fluid and disordered gender is terrifying for patriarchy.”
Josephine’s work is a celebration of non-binary thinking: not just about gender, but about the world in general. And it is something they consider extremely important in an increasingly tumultuous world, where fear risks polarizing all our points of view. “If you put things in small boxes, it creates an illusion of security. But that’s a lie, because life is always messy and never orderly, right? “
Josephine’s play also draws on their experiences in performing their own work. “I’m an actor first and foremost, so when I write, I always imagine I’m on stage doing it, feeling what my body wants to do next.”
Initially, Josephine began writing just to create a platform for performing. “My mom was tired of hearing me complain that there were no parts for me, so she was like, ‘Write yourself something to do.’ I think it’s a working class thing, that kind of hard, no-nonsense graft, just go ahead with this approach. “
They grew up in Hemel Hempstead, where the mother was a nurse and the father was an engineer in a factory. The London theater scene is dominated by privileged voices, but Josephine grew up with free school meals, their passion for theater fueled by trips to the Watford Palace Theater.
After attending acting school at East 15, they exploded with the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe hit Bitch Boxer, a punchy monologue about a young boxer working on her 2012 Olympics debut as she mourned the death of her father, who moved to the Soho Theater after knockout reviews. It was followed by other hits Blush in 2016 and Pops three years later, plus Metamorphoses in Shakespeare’s Globe’s intimate Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
“Growing up, I felt like Shakespeare was for silly and elegant people,” says Josephine. “So I had to grab it with two hands, wrestle with it and make it something for me.” It’s something they did playing a bold, swashbuckling and fiery Mercutio in Erica Whyman’s Romeo and Juliet at RSC in 2018, an experience they describe on their website as transformative: “I had a personal revolution and now I’m proud to be queer and trans. ” Five years earlier, Josephine had also been part of the all-female company that created Phyllida Lloyd’s groundbreaking Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar Warehouse under the artistic direction of Josie Rourke.
However, despite these successes, Josephine’s writing work until now has been for studio theaters; the kind of small spaces queer artists tend to be confined to. So getting a platform on a huge commercial stage like the Globe is hugely welcome and stylistically challenging. “I had to think more about the structure: the classic game structure takes the form of a male orgasm [building to a single climax and then subsiding]so I learned to queer in some ways and to sit inside it in others.
And the distinctive architecture of the Globe requires a certain type of writing, they say, “This space really wants you to speak to the audience, to use the direct address.”
Consequently, I, Joan, begin with a speech directed to the public. It’s partly a manifesto: “Queerness is magic, pure magic!” Says Joan. But it is also an admission of vulnerability. “Yeah, I’m fucking scared. I’m 17! “They say, alone on a huge stage.
Isobel Thom, the non-binary actor who plays Joan, has just graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and is making his professional debut in rather daunting circumstances, both on and off stage. But Josephine wishes to emphasize the joy, as well as the fear, that comes from exploring queer identities on important stages.
“I want to send some love to queer kids because the straight ghetto is wild,” they say. “I hope that coming to see this show feeds them in some way, that it gives them strength. There is always negative attention in the press about trans, queer and non-binary people. And I just want to remind people that like, he’s fucking beautiful, he’s joyful, and he’s really funny.
Io, Joan runs from September 1st to October 22nd; shakespearesglobe.com