JOAN is an interpretation of the life of Joan of Arc, the patron saint of France. Under the directive of voices and visions which she believed to be divine, Joan led the French armies in the Hundred Years War. At nineteen years old, Joan was burnt at the stake for witchcraft. Twice.
In conjunction with Theatre Works, creative formation THE RABBLE ‘tell the story of JOAN in four parts: Light. Body. Fire. Voice.’ Directed by Emma Valente, JOAN relies heavily on the use of interpretative movement – none of the four actresses speak onstage until the play’s closing.
In one scene, we see Emily Milledge standing in front of the microphone, as though about to speak. Nikki Shiels plays the role of a prosecutor, poking her with a twig as a series of questions flash up onscreen behind them. One was particularly poignant, ‘Has your voice forbidden you to speak?’
It made the use of silent black and white film tropes quite loaded metaphorically, as well as a useful tool. Luisa Hastings Edge, Emily Milledge, Dana Miltins and Nikki Shiels were utilising their entire bodies for the entirety of the show. Using cameras and pre-recorded material to focus on the minute details of their facial expressions at key moments created an intense intimacy with the audience.
JOAN was a visceral piece of theatre that engaged all the senses. Wearing and snapping kindling and twigs onstage, the smell of smoke, the sound of crackling fire, the audience was constantly reminded of the violence of Joan of Arc’s death. It was uncomfortable and meant to be.
An implication of male violence also seemed to simmer underneath all of the action. All the actresses share the roles of both recipients and perpetrators of violence. In one telling scene, three of the actresses share a cigar between them as they ogle the fourth reclining in a leotard. The cigar smoke was then forced down Nikki Shiels’ throat, a potent symbol of toxic masculinity.
Though the repetition of movement was incredibly evocative, there were sequences that did linger on a little too long. And since JOAN is heavy with symbolism and imagery, I would’ve liked it to be more grounded, concrete storytelling, so the audience could better follow the complex metaphorical vision.
On a personal note, I would caution that you read the content warnings before seeing this play. In addition to smoke and fire lit onstage, there is some sexual content portrayed that may be distressing.
From the beginning of the performance, the depiction of Joan is ephemeral and disjointed. We see glimpses in the beams of light. A flash of heel, a flick of a hand. In navigating Joan’s inability to define her own legacy (she was illiterate and records of her were coloured through the male gaze), THE RABBLE played with the tension of attempting to attain something elusive. Trying to give historical agency to a woman who lived in the 15th century, for one, but more than that, grasping to find Joan the person, rather than Joan the icon. A story told from every perspective but her own, by the time THE RABBLE found Joan’s voice, we were ready to hear what she had to say.
JOAN will be on at Theatre Works until April 30.