At Shakespeare’s Globe, a Nonbinary Joan of Arc Causes a Stir

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LONDON — When the playwright Charlie Josephine watched the first performance of their play “I, Joan” at Shakespeare’s Globe last week, they sat in the theater, wracked with nerves.

The play, based on the story of Joan of Arc, is Josephine’s first on a major London stage. But that was not the only reason that the playwright, who identifies as transgender, queer and nonbinary, and uses the pronoun they, was anxious. Throughout last month, “I, Joan” had been at the center of a media furor in Britain because of Josephine’s decision to depict Joan of Arc as nonbinary.

In the play, which runs at the Globe through Oct. 22, Joan of Arc comes to terms with their gender identity while inspiring French soldiers to repel English forces from their soil. “I’m not a girl,” Joan says at one point. “I do not fit that word.”

When The Daily Mail, a tabloid newspaper, reported details of the Globe production in August, it led to a barrage of complaints on social media and in print. Allison Pearson, a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, wrote that recasting Joan of Arc as nonbinary was “an insult.” Sophie Walker, a former leader of Britain’s Women’s Equality Party, wrote on Twitter that when she “was a little girl, Joan of Arc presented thrilling possibilities about what one young girl could do against massed ranks of men. Rewriting her as not female and presenting it as progress is a massive disappointment.”

Before anyone had even seen it, the Globe’s show touched a nerve in Britain, where a perceived conflict between the rights of women, and transgender and nonbinary people, has ignited a furious debate that plays out almost daily in the news media, in lawmakers’ speeches and in the courts. Some feminists in Britain have long called for the maintenance of rights based on biological sex, rather than gender identity, which they say threatens women’s-only spaces. Many transgender and nonbinary people say those campaigns discriminate against them and create a hostile environment.

The story of Joan of Arc — a 15th-century teenage girl who is said to have heeded God’s instructions to put on men’s clothing and lead French soldiers in battle, only to be tried for heresy and burned at the stake — has been the subject of plays for centuries. Daniel Hobbins, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, said many of those depictions played fast and loose with historical truth. Shakespeare, in “Henry VI, Part 1,” portrayed Joan of Arc as a witch, in keeping with British views at the time, Hobbins said. In the early 19th century, Friedrich Schiller, in “The Maid of Orleans,” showed Joan falling in love with an English knight. “That didn’t happen,” Hobbins said. “She has been reimagined forever to suit contemporary needs.”

Lucy Delap, a professor of gender history at the University of Cambridge, said Josephine’s reinvention of Joan of Arc had fed into a debate in Britain that had become “so heightened” that there was little communication between the two sides. A play like “I, Joan” could have been a way to open a conversation that would cross that divide, she said, but it had instead become a “useful dog whistle” for people “who were hot under the collar about trans issues.”

Heather Binning of the Women’s Rights Network, a group that aims “to defend the sex-based rights of women,” said in an email that she objected to “I, Joan” because a nonbinary identity was “a 21st-century idea.” Joan of Arc “existed in a time where her struggles were that of being a woman,” she wrote. “Being female, and the biological sex of her body, lies at the root of this story.”

Binning said she thought “I, Joan” was “trying to attract attention by riding on the wave of gender identity ideology that is sweeping not just the U.K., but many other countries.”

Sitting on the roof terrace of the Globe’s offices last week, Josephine, the playwright, said they had anticipated most of the complaints, and felt they were misguided. The play was not trying to erase women from history, Josephine said. It was meant to open up new ways of thinking about a historical figure. If anyone wanted to keep thinking of Joan as a young woman, they said, “then, cool — you still can.”

Josephine, 33, said the French martyr’s story had meant little to them growing up in a working-class family in Hemel Hempstead, southern England. The Globe asked them to write the play last year; the playwright’s main concern, at first, was nothing to do with gender, but how to talk about Joan’s religious beliefs in a way that would resonate with a largely nonreligious theatergoing audience.

Josephine said the decision to make Joan nonbinary came after studying Joan’s life and realizing that Joan of Arc had been willing to die at the stake rather than stop wearing men’s clothing. This was “not a casual fashion statement,” Josephine said. “It was a deep need for them.” Josephine wanted to depict what it would have been like for “a young person in a female body, who is questioning gender in a very different society than what we live in now,” they said. “My younger self really needed a protagonist like this,” they added.

Michelle Terry, the Globe’s artistic director, said the playhouse had a history of causing a stir by playing with gender onstage. In 2003, Mark Rylance, the company’s artistic director at the time, upset some patrons with all-female productions of “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Richard III.” More recently, Terry said she received complaints for playing Hamlet there in 2018, and again this year, when the Globe toured a production of “Julius Caesar” in which the main male characters were played by women.

“Everyone’s got an idea of how plays should be done and how historical figures should be treated,” she said. All “I, Joan” was doing, Terry said, was asking, “Who is Joan for now?”

For all the media fuss, the one place where few people seemed concerned about Joan of Arc’s gender was in the auditorium of the Globe itself. At a recent performance of “I, Joan,” the audience of nearly 1,000 was made up of the theater’s usual mix of British theater lovers, tourists and school groups. At 7:30 p.m., Isobel Thom, who plays Joan, walked onstage and began the show’s opening speech: “Trans people are sacred. We are the divine.” The monologue was interrupted by cheers of support.

Robin van Asselt, 23, a transgender woman from Amsterdam in the audience, said she had cried watching the “casual queerness” onstage. Joan’s “aggressive push to be seen and respected” as nonbinary “was just so cathartic,” van Asselt added.

In interviews with nearly 20 more audience members, no one said they had a problem with a nonbinary Joan of Arc. Wanda Forsythe, 72, a retired college administrator on vacation from Toronto, said she “didn’t feel offended as a woman — just that it could have been done a bit better, and shorter.” (The show runs almost three hours.)

Jackie Warren, 62, a retired government official, said she and her husband came to two plays at the Globe every year and had picked “I, Joan” at random. Portraying Joan as nonbinary was “really clever,” Warren said.

“I’m old, aren’t I?” she added, “so I don’t understand a lot of it. I just think we need to open our hearts to everybody, and I can’t understand why we can’t.” Smm Panel is the best and cheapest smm reseller panel Buy Tiktok Verification for instant Instagram likes and followers, Buy Verification Badge, Youtube views and subscribers, TikTok followers, telegram services, and many other smm services. telegram, and many other smm services.