At Shakespeare’s Globe, an Extraordinary Joan of Arc caused a stir

LONDON – When playwright Charlie Josephine watched the first performance of their play “I, JoanAt Shakespeare’s Globe last week, they sat in the theater, tense.

The play, based on the story of Joan of Arc, was Josephine’s first play on the big stage in London. But that’s not the only reason the playwright, who identifies as transgender, gay and non-binary, and uses the pronoun they, is worried. During the last month, “I, Joan” has been the focus of outcry in the UK media over Josephine’s decision to portray Joan of Arc as extraordinary.

In the play, which runs at the Globe through October 22, Joan of Arc addresses their gender identity while inspiring French soldiers to repel British forces from their land. Joan said at one point: “I’m not a girl. “I don’t fit that word.”

When The Daily Mail, a tabloid, reported in detail the Globe production in August, it led to a flurry of complaints on social media and in print. Allison Pearson, a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, wrote that repeating Joan of Arc is non-binary. is “an insult.” Sophie Walker, former leader of Britain’s Women’s Equality Party, wrote on Twitter that when she was “a little girl, Joan of Arc presented the thrilling possibilities of what a young girl could do against large ranks of men. Rewriting she’s not a woman and presenting it as progress is a huge disappointment. “

Before anyone saw it, the Globe’s show touched a nerve in the UK, where the perceived conflict between the rights of women, transgender and non-binary people, caused a intense debate takes place almost daily in the news media, in the speeches of the legislators and in the courts. Some feminists in the UK have long called for upholding rights based on biological sex, rather than gender identity, which they see as threatening a space just for women. Many transgender and non-hybrid people say the campaigns discriminate against them and create a hostile environment.

The Joan of Arc’s story – a teenage girl from the 15th century who is said to have followed God’s instructions to dress as men and lead French soldiers in battle, only to be tried for heresy and burned live – has been the subject of plays for centuries. Daniel Hobbins, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, says many of these descriptions are fast-paced and loose with historical facts. Shakespeare, in “Henry VI, Part 1,” portrays Joan of Arc as a witch, in keeping with the British view of the time, Hobbins said. In the early 19th century, Friedrich Schiller, in “The Handmaid of Orleans”, shows Joan falling in love with an English knight. “That didn’t happen,” Hobbins said. “She has been reinvented forever to fit modern needs.”

Lucy Delap, professor of gender history at the University of Cambridge, said Josephine’s reproduction of Joan of Arc had brought the debate in Britain so “tense” that there was little communication between the two sides. A play like “I, Joan” might have been a way to open up a conversation that crossed that line, she said, but instead, it became a “helpful whistle” for those “Hot on transgender issues. “

Heather Binning of the Women’s Rights Network, a group that aims to “defend women’s rights based on gender,” said in an email that she opposes “I, Joan” because a non-binary identity is “the ideas of the 21st century”. Joan of Arc “existed in a time when her struggle was that of a woman,” she wrote. “Being a woman, and the biological sex of her body, lies at the root of this story.”

Binning said she thinks “I, Joan” is “trying to get attention by fueling the wave of gender identity thought that is spreading not only in the UK but many other countries”.

Sitting on the rooftop of the Globe’s offices last week, playwright Josephine said they had anticipated most of the complaints, and felt they were wrong. The play, Josephine says, is not trying to erase women from history. It aims to open up new ways of thinking about a historical figure. If anyone wants to keep thinking about Joan as a young woman, they say, “well then, great – you still can.”

Josephine, 33, said the story of the French martyr meant nothing to them growing up in a working-class family in Hemel Hempstead, in the south of England. The Globe asked them to write the play last year; The playwright’s main concern, at first, had nothing to do with gender, but with how to speak about Joan’s religious beliefs in a way that resonated with the majority of a non-religious audience.

Josephine said the decision to make Joan non-binary was made after researching Joan’s life and realizing that Joan of Arc was more willing to die on the stake than to stop wearing men’s clothing. “This is no ordinary fashion statement,” says Josephine. “It’s a deep need for them.” Josephine wanted to describe what that would be like for “a young person in a female body who is questioning gender in a society very different from the one we live in today,” they said. . “My childhood self really needed a protagonist like this,” they added.

Michelle Terry, the Globe’s artistic director, said the play once caused a stir by playing with gender on stage. In 2003, Mark Rylance, the company’s artistic director at the time, upset some customers because All-female products of “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Richard III.” More recently, Terry said she has received complaints about play Hamlet there in 2018 and again this year, when the Globe toured the film “Julius Caesar,” in which the male leads are played by women.

“Everybody has an idea of ​​how plays should be made and how historical figures should be treated,” she said. All “I, Joan” is doing, says Terry, is asking, “Who is Joan now?”

For all the media buzz, one place where few seem to care about Joan of Arc’s gender is in the Globe’s own auditorium. At the recent performance of “I, Joan”, the nearly 1,000 audience consisted of British theater lovers, tourists and school groups. At 7:30 p.m., Isobel Thom, who plays Joan, stepped onto the stage and began the show’s opening speech: “Transgender people are sacred. We are divine. The monologue was interrupted by cheers of support.

Robin van Asselt, 23, a transgender woman from Amsterdam in the audience, said she cried while watching the “normal weirdness” on stage. “Joan’s positive push to be seen and respected” as non-binary “is really compelling,” added van Asselt.

In interviews with nearly 20 other viewers, no one said they had a problem with Joan of Arc being non-binary. Wanda Forsythe, 72, a retired college administrator on vacation from Toronto, said she “didn’t feel offended as a woman – it just could have been done better than a little and shorter”. (The performance lasted nearly three hours.)

Jackie Warren, 62, a retired government official, said she and her husband come to see two plays at the Globe each year and choose “I, Joan” at random. Warren said: Painting Joan is non-binary “really very clever”.

“I’m old, aren’t I?” She added, “so I don’t understand much about it. I just think we need to open up to people, and I can’t see why we can’t.”

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