by Charlie Josephine
Directed by Ilinca Radulian
Shakespeare’s Globe – until 22 October 2022
As professional debuts go, Isobel Thom’s central role in Charlie Josephine’s rambunctious, surprising distillation of the fabled life of the Maid of Orléans for Shakespeare’s Globe, takes some beating. Thom gives a beguiling, persuasive performance that humanises Joan of Arc while still preserving the magic surrounding this divisive figure.
What Josephine has created is less a coherent historical drama (and, to be fair, Bernard Shaw and Anouilh already have this story covered in that respect with Saint Joan and The Lark respectively) and more a genderqueer pageant pitched somewhere between Brecht and Black Adder, that reframes Joan as a non-binary poster child for tolerance and rebellion. It’s very much a Globe play too in that it paints in broad brushstrokes (essential when you’ve got noise seepage from the skies above and the Thames just outside), and it’s bold, mouthy, engaging, urgent….
Some eyebrows were raised at the prospect of a gender fluid Joan but it’s hard to see why: it’s impossible to think of another historical figure so well suited to this sort of creative treatment than a person who eschewed every aspect of their traditional gender identifications, and furthermore I’m pretty sure that most of Shakespeare’s history plays were no more factually accurate than what we currently have at the Globe. If this theatre had a roof, Joan would have torn it off by now.
Josephine’s writing is salty, anachronistic, vivid. You may not expect a play about Joan of Arc to have as many belly laughs as you get here, but both Jolyon Coy’s preposterously swaggering Dauphin and Adam Gillen’s dithering, self-effacing sidekick are sublime comic creations made all the funnier by being rooted in a certain reality, however crazy. I also adored Jonah Russell’s rugged Dunois who takes his time to come round to approving of Joan, and Debbie Korley’s comically imperious, Thatcherite regent Queen.
The play is touching as well though: the collective sigh of recognition and acceptance that goes through the crowd when Gillen’s inspired Thomas first suggests the “they” pronoun to a confused Joan is deeply moving, and, throughout, the central character is a figure that, for all their bravery and outward toughness, it’s impossible not to root and care for, especially as embodied by the magnetic, lovable Thom.
The battle sections are particularly exhilarating with stomping, combative choreography, by Jennifer Jackson, that sits low in the body, feels refreshingly spontaneous, and builds to an enthralling climax as more and more company members join Joan’s crusade. The effect is simultaneously joyful and slightly threatening. The audience went nuts for it, and also for the fabulous cast entrances via an enormous slide that takes up almost the entire height of the performing space. Ilinca Radulian’s energetic production consistently succeeds in striking the right balance between raucous, playful and lofty.
Joan’s death, when it comes, is cancelled, or at least postponed, by a Groundling led chant of “change the play!” not dissimilar to the traditional audience participation cries of “I believe in fairies!” in the annual Peter Pan play at Christmas. Josephine gives Thom a rousing, marvellous speech of defiance dismantling the patriarchy and putting two fingers up to gender expectations and limitations. It’s terrifically delivered and whips an already hugely engaged audience up into a further frenzy of enraptured indignation.
Exciting as the writing and the performance is, it does by this point feel slightly grafted on to the legend of the French peasant girl who liberated France only to be betrayed and burnt at the stake for her pains. That won’t matter to many: Josephine’s script relentlessly pushes it’s agenda and is very much preaching to the choir in terms of matching the expectations of the audience coming to see this unique piece of theatre.
Forget subtlety and embrace the big beautiful, messy heart of it: what we have here is a flamboyantly queer-accented slice of uplifting mass populist entertainment. It feels like this season’s Nell Gwynn or Emilia, and I suspect we will see more of it after this brief late summer season. And in Isobel Thom, the theatre has a glittering new star.