From a silent film classic and an often-revived George Bernard Shaw play to songs by Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush and Madonna, the singular figure of Joan of Arc has remained a somewhat unlikely icon and object of inspiration in 20th and 21st century popular culture. This enduring fascination must be down, in part, to the contradictory qualities embodied by the so-called “Maid of Orleans”. Peasant, prophetess, warrior, witch, martyr, saint - the identities encompassed by (or ascribed to) Joan of Arc make her a slippery, weirdly radical figure whose transgressions can be seen to go beyond their very specific historical, political and religious contexts and find resonance here and now.
The question of Joan’s identity - and, more particularly, her gender identity - lies at the heart of the most recent play to represent her: Lucy J Skilbeck’s JOAN. Seen last year at Battersea Arts Centre, and subsequently in a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe (where it won several awards) Skilbeck’s one-person show now comes back to London for a couple of weeks of performances in the intimate Downstairs space at Ovalhouse. It’s a most welcome return, for JOAN is an embracing, illuminating, hugely enjoyable work that adds something genuinely fresh to our perception of its heroine and her historical (and contemporary) significance.
Skilbeck’s play has clearly been carefully researched. The focus is on the events leading up to Joan’s execution: we learn about the death of her mother at the hands of the English; her decision to leave her father; and the visions of Saint Catherine that inspired her to convince the exiled King to let her lead an army against the country’s oppressors.
However, the novelty and urgency of the piece lies in the way in which it reflects and refracts Joan through the prism of contemporary gender politics. This it does boldly yet also delicately, without attempting to impose one reductive reading on the protagonist’s identity. It’s no surprise that Joan’s religious zeal is less of a concern, conveyed mostly through her deep sense of connection to Catherine. Instead, the focus is on a much more modish aspect: namely, the confrontation of a radical, “gloriously confusing” body with the rigid apparatuses of patriarchal power. The show is particularly good at conveying the sense of freedom and possibility that Joan experiences in her male attire, as she turns her bra into a trouser bulge, and feels “for the first time total ease.”
The fluidity of Joan’s identity is echoed in the form of the show itself which combines elements of dramatic monologue, cabaret and musical. The approach couldn’t be further from strained Shavian verbosity: rather, it’s physical, fleet and often very funny, with some exhilarating musical interludes. Complemented by Joshua Pharo’s terrific lighting, Emma Bailey’s simple set of crates and mirrors lightly accents the plays themes, and Skilbeck’s direction keeps the pace supple at all times so that the proceedings turn from wry to wrenching on a dime.
In Lucy Jane Parkinson, the show has its ideal performer, too. Winner of Drag King Idol 2014, Parkinson (aka LoUis CYfer) is a dynamic presence: a whirlwind who plays off the encircling audience with hilarious aplomb, especially when mobilizing us to become an army. This Northern-accented Joan embraces something of a Riot Grrrl aesthetic: Tank Girl top, big sneakers, dreads springing from a partially shaved scalp.
Yet, as Joan confronts the consequences of (in Judith Butler’s great phrase) “doing one’s gender wrong,” Parkinson skillfully modulates her performance, doing justice both to Joan’s swagger and her aching sense of set-apartness. The late scenes in which Joan tries to appease her oppressors by letting her hair down and attempting to find a male mate are equal parts funny and painful, revealing femininity to be its own kind of drag act for women. Parkinson’s generous, open interpretation hotwires us to the heroine’s humanity throughout.
But that’s not all. Via brisk on-stage transformations Parkinson also morphs into three of the men in Joan’s life: her father, Charles VII, and her pro-English interrogator Pierre Cauchon. It’s these guys, in fact, who get the evening’s irreverent songs, and Parkinson’s manic metamorphosis into the disco-dancing Dauphin is particularly sublime. However, Joan herself is finally allotted a moving, intimate number that Parkinson delivers beautifully, as this huge-hearted, playful yet profound revisioning of an icon arrives at its deeply poignant close.
Booking until 22nd April. Further details here.
Reviewed for The Reviews Hub.