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‘I forgot I was blaspheming a saint!’ – Charlie Josephine on writing a non-binary Joan of Arc

‘I’m always hungry for historical queer representation,” says Charlie Josephine, the non-binary playwright of I, Joan, a sweaty, heady, joyously queer new drama about the patron saint of France. “Because our history has been erased – particularly transgender people’s – there is very limited documentation of us throughout history, even though we have existed since the beginning of time.”

I, Joan, which has just opened at the Globe theatre in London, throws us into the life of 17-year-old Joan of Arc, the 15th-century teenage peasant who claimed to be divinely chosen to lead the French army during the hundred years war. With a limited surviving archive from medieval France, there are details about Joan’s life that we will never know for sure. This makes her story ripe for re-examination and – for Josephine – reclamation.

I, Joan, which is directed by Ilinca Radulian, portrays Joan as non-binary. We see them fighting first for an audience with the soon-to-be king, then later on the fields of France – but they are also simultaneously battling a society where their identity puts them in extreme danger. Joan famously wore men’s clothing, had short hair and took up arms. But gender is rooted far deeper than these outward signifiers, which can be argued away by the practicalities of surviving in the middle ages. To Josephine, Joan being written as non-binary felt both obvious and natural. “I could have written this play as a cis woman who is feminist and passionate about expressing themselves in this way,” says Josephine, shrugging the idea away. “But the more I read about Joan, the more I think they’re what we would now call non-binary or trans.”

In Josephine’s imagining, the character’s grappling with gender is intertwined inextricably with their divinity. “My understanding of Joan’s God is that it’s an internal, almost gut instinct,” says Josephine, who points to the transcript of Joan’s trial, the primary source of Joan’s own voice: “They are asked again and again why they are wearing men’s clothing. And again and again, Joan says, ‘Because God guided me to.’”

‘I am very familiar with that kind of abuse’ … Charlie Josephine
‘I am very familiar with that kind of abuse’ … Charlie Josephine

It is this trial that ultimately leads to Joan being burned at the stake for heresy. “It seemed like it wasn’t a casual fashion statement that Joan chose death. It was seen as both a sin and a crime to present in the way they did. They knew the risk and they chose it. For me, that’s a deep need.” Joan’s queerness, Josephine suggests, is like those messages from God: an order, an insistence, a necessity. “I couldn’t read that as anything other than a trans experience.”

The announcement of the character being non-binary attracted immediate outrage online, with attacks on cast, crew and the very idea that the identity of a historical figure could be re-examined in art. “It was all pretty predictable,” says Josephine. “Personally, I am very familiar with that kind of abuse. None of it was surprising. But we haven’t given it too much attention, because we’ve got a job to do.” When we speak, the show is starting to come together. “This play has been made with such care and love. It requires real courage from the actors. I think they’ve got enough on their plate without thinking about all that stuff.”

There was, however, one part of the backlash that caught Josephine by surprise. “I forgot I was blaspheming a saint!” they say with a laugh, hands lifting to their head and almost forming a halo. When first considering how to write the play, they add, Joan’s devotion did prove a challenge. “I’m not a religious person and most of our audience won’t be,” Josephine says. “I was like: ‘How am I going to make God exciting to a 2022 non-denominational audience? How am I going to make that accessible?’”

Josephine found the answer by leaning into the complexities of Joan’s Catholicism, and exploring how a working-class background may have been a barrier to the traditional hierarchies of religion. This child who grew up in a peasant family wouldn’t have understood the Latin spoken in church. “They couldn’t read, couldn’t write,” Josephine says, “but they had to go to church to listen to some bloke talking in Latin, and be told that’s how you experience God. Joan experienced God while walking through fields with nature, hearing their own expression of it.”

In the play, the vehicle for this expression is dance, the use of movement stemming from the failure of language. Reconsidering gender through a historical lens, says Josephine, always throws up questions of finding the right words. “The language we have now, Joan didn’t have then. There’s a violence in that, I think. To not have the words to explain yourself is a really terrifying thing.”

‘It was seen as both a sin and a crime to present in the way Joan did’ … the patron saint of France was burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431.
‘It was seen as both a sin and a crime to present in the way Joan did’ … the patron saint of France was burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431. Photograph: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

So, in the absence of adequate language, there is an abundance of all-encompassing movement. The whole show is written vividly and bodily, with every battle told through dance, choreographed by Jennifer Jackson. “I really didn’t want to do any naff sword-fighting,” Josephine says. “With the war, I wanted it to be about the body, to remind us of the humans in it. It’s a queer message, too. It felt important that the body was front and centre.”

The Globe’s epic space requires this kinetic energy, the playwright argues, this riot of movement from Joan’s battles, bullies and moments of divine inspiration. With £5 tickets for groundlings, they hope the show will invite a whole new audience to hear this story of a working-class historic hero, told here as non-binary, turning the Globe into a space for dance and celebration. “Half the audience are on their feet like they’re at a gig,” Josephine says. “They can literally leave if they get bored. There’s planes and pigeons and it’s going to rain. It’s visceral and immediate.” If all goes to plan, they say, the show should feel “punk and fizzy”.

The size of the theatre has also allowed them to be courageous in their writing. “I wanted to dare myself to write epic speeches and be aware of the sky in that space,” Josephine says, smiling. “We’ve got the budget for horses but that really would have upstaged my writing.”

The divinely chosen teenager is played by non-binary actor Isobel Thom, a recent graduate from Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. “They graduated five minutes ago,” Josephine laughs. “They’re amazing, an intelligent actor, passionate and courageous. I don’t know if I could do what they’re doing, certainly at this stage of their career, but also at this stage of their life.”

In response to the online attacks, Thom posted on Twitter: “joan is an icon to so many, of any gender, but holds such a special significance to women / afab [assigned female at birth] people […] nobody is taking historical joan away from you. nobody is taking away your joan, whatever joan may mean to you […] this show is art: it’s an exploration, it’s imagination.”

Few performers have to deal with such an onslaught of abuse for their professional debut. But this production has never been about causing controversy. In I, Joan, the protagonist’s queerness is an essential part of who the character is, a core part of the story. It is clear from the script and Josephine’s enthusiasm that the very bones of this production vibrate with queer pride, delight and community. “It’s a joyful thing to be queer,” they say, grinning. “It’s a beautiful thing to be trans.”

Historical theatre will always be interpretive, by its very nature. “It’s not historically accurate – if we’re comparing it with the history books that were written by white, cis, straight, middle class, middle-aged men,” Josephine says. “But I think it’s important to interrogate where we’re getting our information from.” They are not trying to tell a naturalistic story: there is so much movement here, after all, with drummers, dancers and direct address. “There’s limitless expansion in art. That’s the whole point. It’s not a museum. It’s poetry and play and asking all the big what-if questions.”

And what if this was a story of a non-conforming warrior who, should they be alive today, might hear the word non-binary and feel it fits? What if it were told on a stage that has toyed with history, reimagined and re-examined it – and considered our motivations for putting the past on stage at all? “There’s enough space for all of us,” Josephine says, leaning back in their chair, certain in themself and their show. “For those who want to see Joan as a strong young feminist woman, they can still see Joan like that. For those hungry for this new exploration of Joan, this play is exciting. Nothing is being taken away, only expanded.”

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