Tuesday, 25 April 2017

JOAN by The Rabble (Theatre Works)

The Rabble's JOAN

Darkness. Pitch darkness.

A heavenly light shines down on a woman praying. No, not just praying, throwing herself onto her knees, as an offer to God. Over and over again. In submission to Him.

It’s a hypnotic sequence; remarkable and already giving the audience a sense of unease. The act itself is physically demanding, almost punishing, but the glimpses we get of this woman – these women – are striking. This is Joan pledging herself to God in repetition.

No one makes theatre like The Rabble, though these black and white images and allusions to silent film, do bump alongside the remarkable work of Adena Jacobs and Fraught Outfit. What a treat that Theatre Works has programmed work from both companies this year. Fraught Outfit’s The Book of Exodus, Part I opens late in May.

Joan, like all of The Rabble’s work, takes a figure audiences will be aware of from history or literature – and in this case, both – and finds a fresh way to reconsider that text. Or that person. If we know of Joan d’Arc, we know of films and books and songs and poems that tell her story. We may only know the basics of her historic truth – the virgin warrior who claimed to be guided by the voice of God.

Creators Kate Davis and Emma Valente bring out a deeper consideration on the subject; what do we know of Joan that has contemporary resonance? What parts of her life might be better appreciated through queer, feminist theatre rather than the stories we’ve heard told by men throughout the centuries?

The black and white imagery is evocative of one of the early films of Joan’s life, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer’s use of lighting and extreme close ups is striking and unnerving, striving for a kind of realism which reaches its apotheosis in the scene where Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s Joan is burned at the stake. It’s all too real.

Much like the Dreyer film, The Rabble’s Joan is silent for much of its length for two reasons: one, the strength of their visual elements tells Joan’s story through close-up projections and choreography, and two, much of this play is about women’s lack of voice. Joan’s voice, her truth, has been sublimated by the Voice of God and the repetition of her story that highlights her possible mental illness and, typically, her virginity.

Actors Luisa Hastings Edge, Emily Milledge, Dana Miltins and Nikki Shiels are all Joan. They all suffer the bruising physical punishment of dropping to their knees in prayer and, in various ways, being subjected to ordeals that prove Joan’s purity and corporeal worth.

From darkness, through the light of God, only to find themselves thrown onto a pyre, these women are dragged closer and closer to the flame – ready to be burned on the altar of history and the retelling of a story that rarely considers Joan’s bodily autonomy or her own voice.

The Rabble’s Joan is deeply affecting and troubling, but somehow this company, this ensemble, finds a way to give Joan back her voice – through the haze and under the bright light of a full moon. 

Darkness, no more.

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