JOAN: Milk Presents, in association with Derby Theatre

Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61) Aug 21-25, 27 at 19:20
Box Office Adults £11.50 / Concessions £10.50

“I am Joan. The Joan. My body deliciously confusing. And I will speak. I will fight.”

Joan of Arc has been represented and re-represented almost continually on the English stage since the time of Shakespeare (for more information, see here), but she remains an enigma that baffles historians and intrigues creatives. Concurrently with this production of Lucy Skilbeck’s JOAN touring for the past year, Gemma Arterton famously took to the stage at the National Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse recently in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. One thing is for sure, JOAN certainly offers a very different take on France’s most famous woman. In a brand new retelling, production company Milk Presents have sought to transform everything you thought you knew about the medieval heroine through this whirlwind one-woman show. Joan of Arc is a figure who means multiple things to many people and, despite having the status of heroic legend, is not easily pinned down. Joan is performed by the incredibly talented Lucy Jane Parkinson, aka LoUis CYfer (winner of Drag Idol 2014), and while Parkinson’s Joan is certainly different from the other recent portrayals of her on other stages, she is no less engaging.

The theatre is set in the round with seats on all sides in the beautifully flexible Ovalhouse Theatre. The front rows have been set out with tables providing a cafe/bar-like atmosphere, complete with specially made “Orlean Brewing Company” beer mats. Four mirrors around the performance space reflect inwards, and unobtrusive smoke appears to mask the behind walls creating an intimate and almost ethereal atmosphere. At the centre four crates are arranged to form a cross, and these are moved around continually to create different scenes, until reforming into the cross at the end for the play’s inevitably tragic conclusion. “She’ll be here” we are told as Joan creates a spare seat for her guiding light, Saint Katherine. The storytelling begins and Joan takes us through her journey from country farm girl to martyred saint.

While a core theme for this production is the performance of gender, JOAN is also more than this: this production emphasises Joan of Arc’s humanity as well as just her femininity. This being said, in Joan of Arc’s own time she stirred considerable controversy through her wearing of male clothes, and it was ultimately her refusal to wear female clothes that led to her death after she had abjured her confession to inquisitors. Clothing to Joan of Arc was a core part of her identity as well as her defiance, but I will leave this to the historians to continue their arguments over her sexuality and gender.[1] For Parkinson’s Joan, clothing is about confidence, and the assumption of power that comes with dressing as a man. In a particularly humourus part of the show Joan asks a member of the audience to teach her how to walk like a man, enforcing that there is much more to masculinity that simply changing one’s appearance.

Ben Walters for The Scotsman writes: “in JOAN, male clothing is a vehicle of satire, then a path to glory, then an expression of the essential self.”[2] While this is true of the play, it is also important to emphasise the transition undertaken by Joan herself, not just her choice of clothing. It is also helpful to keep in mind that the two aren’t necessarily correlative. Gender whilst in some ways accentuated also becomes less defining by Parkinson’s seamless switching as the focus turns instead to the human being at the centre of the narrative. JOAN is the story of one woman told by one woman: “I am a leader, a leader of men. And when I lead they follow”. Parkinson’s honest storytelling is captivating as she also relays the stories of other characters, all male, that appear in her tale. This is done with the help of some well written and well performed musical numbers. Parkinson begins with a Broadway-esue number as she takes on the role of Joan’s father, then moves to a disco Dauphin Charles, and then sings the part of bluesy Inquisitor Pierre Cauchon. In taking on these roles, Parkinson’s Joan both mocks, and to an extent controls, her own narrative. The interjections formed by these humorous and poignant songs, as well as multiple costume changes, make JOAN a wonderfully dynamic piece of theatre.

It is Parkinson’s interactions with the audience truly make this piece stand out. We are taken along for the ride and we feel involved in the decisions and actions undertaken. This is an often hilarious show, despite its sombre subject matter. Stilbeck’s script is witty, challenging, and is historically both accurate and succinct: the whole story of Joan of Arc’s life is compressed into an hour in JOAN, but this never compromises it as a piece of theatre. As JOAN reaches its climax, one’s eyes are drawn to the seat reserved for Saint Katherine. In her final moments the emotional connection built between Parkinson and the audience, cleverly constructed and maintained throughout the piece by frequent extended audience interaction, ensures that the audience hold their breath as Joan looks up and desperately calls out for Saint Katherine as the flames rise towards her.

JOAN continues at the Oval House until the 22nd of April but continues to tour. For more information head here.

[1] Some excellent starting points for reading on Joan of Arc: Lilas G. Edwards ‘Joan of Arc: Empowerment and Risk in Androgyny’, Medieval Life, 5, 1996. And Deborah Fraioli, Joan of Arc: The Early Debate (Woodbridge, 2000). Aditionally for sources some phenomenal work has been conducted by Craig Taylor, La Pucelle (Manchester University Press: 2006) with all the original documents translated into English.

 

[2] Ben Walters, “All cross-dressed up for the occasion: review round up: Cuncrete| Royal Vauxhall| JOAN| Gender Spanner”, The Scotsman 17th August 2016. http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/theatre/all-cross-dressed-up-for-the-occasion-review-round-up-cuncrete-royal-vauxhall-joan-gender-spanner-1-4205650