ST JOAN of Arc, the ‘Maid of Orleans’, is one of history’s greatest heroines. A mystic who led an army into battle at the age of 17 after receiving heavenly messages from Saints Michael, Margaret and Catherine, her intervention in the Hundred Years’ War came at a moment which proved pivotal in the liberation of France from English domination. So they punished her with a show trial and by burning her as a witch in the market place in Rouen in 1431. She was just 19.
Joan was canonised in 1920 and is a patron saint of the French – their St George. Pope Benedict XVI, preaching about her life in 2011, declared her to be not only one of the ‘strong women’ who ‘fearlessly bore the great light of the Gospel in the complex events of history’ but said that she was also a person like ‘the holy women who stayed on Calvary, close to the Crucified Jesus and to Mary his Mother, while the Apostles had fled and Peter himself had denied him three times’. From a Roman Pontiff, it is difficult to imagine higher praise for any woman than this.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London will, however, from Thursday stage a production called I, Joan, which chooses to imagine the saint in a very different way. The team were evidently excited by St Joan’s attire in battle. Like men, she wore armour – though for protection rather than as a statement of sexual identity, a point I fear has been missed by the writers, who have chosen to portray a woman who was consecrated in virginity to God as a non-binary ‘queer’ who refers to herself using ‘they/them’ pronouns.
The play is by Charlie Josephine, a self-professed ‘non-binary’ person who promises a ‘big sweaty, queer, revolution, rebellion, festival of, like, joy’. It comes amid a broader global drive to promote LGBTQ themes in the performing arts. It follows, for example, the recent announcement by Roundabout Theatre on Broadway of an international tour of the celebrated musical 1776 with the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution portrayed exclusively by ‘actors who identify as female, transgender, and non-binary’.
The decision to recast St Joan as a gender ideologue has attracted criticism, notably from J K Rowling, the bête noire of transsexual revolutionaries. She described the depiction of the saint as ‘insulting and damaging’. Women from across the political spectrum share her opinions. They include, for instance, the former Conservative Minister Ann Widdecombe, a Catholic, who accused the Globe of ‘de-womanising’ St Joan in a ‘farce beyond measure’.
The backlash has prompted Michelle Terry, the artistic director of the Globe, to defend the production by arguing that theatre is about story-telling rather than ‘historical reality’.
‘Theatres produce plays, and in plays, anything can be possible,’ she said. ‘Shakespeare did not write historically accurate plays. He took figures of the past to ask questions about the world around him. Our writers of today are doing no different, whether that’s looking at Anne Boleyn, Nell Gwyn, Emilia Bassano, Edward II or Joan of Arc.
‘The Globe is a place of imagination. A place where, for a brief amount of time, we can at least consider the possibility of worlds elsewhere. We have had entire storms take place on stage, the sinking of ships, twins who look nothing alike being believable, and even a queen of the fairies falling in love with a donkey.’
She added: ‘Shakespeare was not afraid of discomfort, and neither is the Globe.’
It was wise for the Globe to surrender any claim to historical accuracy because St Joan clearly was by no means a non-binary gender ideologue of the early 21st century.
Listen to her words: ‘I entrust myself to God my Creator, I love him with my whole heart.’ They reveal that not only does she see herself as a deeply religious woman, but she sees God – embodied in the person of Jesus Christ – as a man. She was very ‘cis’ and ‘heteronormative’ indeed; a strange choice for a trans-heroine.
This is of course the point of the exercise. It is all about hijacking heroic figures for the next cycle of the sexual revolution. What it is not about is dramatic licence or the right to cast historic figures in fanciful lights for the sake of a good story. Freedoms of speech and expression are no longer any use to those advancing the emerging new anthropologies, just things to be derided, scorned and crushed. So until the time comes when villains are also cast as non-binary figures, surely the only sensible course of action is to treat such productions as propaganda worthy only of totalitarian regimes.
I would love the Globe or the Roundabout Theatre to prove me wrong. I’d even be happy to help them. So here’s a challenge: what about a production about the Roman Emperor Nero? He is acknowledged as one of the most evil men in history. He murdered his mother, raped and murdered his brother, decapitated his first wife and gave her head to his mistress as a trophy before marrying her and kicking her to death when she was heavily pregnant. Regretting his murder of wife number two, Nero then procured a boy who looked just like her but castrated him to retain his youthful looks before giving him his wife’s name and marrying him too. He offered riches to anyone able to give his catamite a full sex change, including the successful implantation of a uterus. And this was just his private life.
Nero presents the example of a very contemporary man/woman/thing with new and exciting things to say about children’s rights, sexual liberation, no-fault divorce, abortion rights, trans rights, gay marriage and gay families – surely all vitally important causes. The theatres would have the additional defence that they lack in their depictions of St Joan of Arc and all the others who will follow her in the re-writing of history, because in the case of Nero all of these deeds were recorded as true. I can’t wait.