“I found myself looking back through history for queer icons”, says director and playwright Lucy J. Skilbeck. And just the quickest of glances at the poster for Joan shows that they more than found one. Its title character is resplendent in a bronze plastic breastplate and a painted-on beard, riding a hobby horse into battle against invisible confetti cannons – ridiculous and earnestly triumphant at the same time. It’s a mix of silliness and seriousness that sums up Joan’s success pretty accurately – and the host of rave reviews and awards it landed Skilbeck at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. It’s a properly fun, sharp retelling of the Joan of Arc legend, set in medieval France-via-Bolton nightclub.
A kind of mini-trend of last year’s Fringe was work that brought subversive ideas about gender and sexuality out of niche spaces, and into the mainstream – like Lucy McCormick’s hyper-explicit riff on Christ’s resurrection Triple Threat, or the Great White Males’ drag king gig Cuncrete. Their success was was built on a huge amount of courage. Performing to 50 drunk friends and allies in a queer space is a million miles from putting personal, difficult work in front of a completely mixed audience – they’ve got no primer, no frame of reference to see it through. For Skilbeck, this was vital. “When I was 18 I first came to London [to study at Central School of Speech and Drama] and a lot of things I’d been feeling but not understanding suddenly really came to the forefront. We got taken to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and got to experience queer work and queer cabaret, but it felt very confined to those nights and those spaces. And what I hope to do with Joan, in a very fun, light touch way, is to take those ideas and explore them with everyone – to break them out of those nightclub worlds, to take them into pubs and community centres and schools.”
A visionary medieval saint is an unusual guiding light through the tangled world of queer politics. Skilbeck explains that when researching Joan, “I was at a point in my life where I was questioning a lot of things, and just found myself looking back in history to make sense of stuff. And there aren’t many people who are really that well known. A lot of queer history has either been re-written or written out.” Joan of Arc stood out. Whereas history’s usually pretty brutal to anyone who steps out of gender boundaries – from female king Hapshetsut, whose shamed son scrubbed her bearded images from the annals, to the bleak downfall of Oscar Wilde – Joan was protected by a double whammy of French military might during her lifetime, then Catholic canonisation after her death.
Which only goes some way to masking her radicalism: “She was wearing men’s clothing at a time when it was absolutely not okay for young women to do that. She went on to turn the course of the hundred years’ war around, ended up leading these huge battles. You’re left wondering: how did this girl from a tiny village end up doing that?” And it was Joan’s insistence on wearing men’s clothing, not her armour-wearing power to fight, that caused her death after she was captured by the English. As Skilbeck explains, after an initial reprieve, “She made the choice to put men’s clothing back on, even though she knew that in doing that she would be put to death. Whether that was an expression of gender identity, or her having to stand by what she believed in, there’s something totally remarkable about that story and it made complete sense to have a drag king perform this story, because drag kings constantly perform gender.”
That king turned out to be Drag Idol Champion 2014 LoUis CYfer – in a slightly surprising turn of events for a show that originally came to life as part of RETOLD, a series of new one woman plays commissioned by Derby Theatre’s now-artistic director Sarah Brigham. “I said ‘Would you mind if I made a cabaret show about Joan of Arc’, and to her credit she said ‘How can we help?’. I actually commissioned three different writers to write the play, and each time I got more and more specific about what it would be. In the end Sarah said ‘Why don’t you write it?’. I thought ‘I’m a proper director, I’m not going to write my own play’ but ultimately that was the way to go.”
Skilbeck’s directorial credentials were honed at queer theatre company Milk Presents, together with Ruby Glaskin and Adam Robertson. The three performers began their playful approach to gender with surreal fairytale Bluebeard, or A Real Man’s Guide to Sainthood. I first saw their work at their 2014 show Self Service started as an uncomplicated, borderline tub-thumping celebration of what it means to be queer – and then collapsed, like a glittery cupcake left to melt in the sun, into greasier layers of self-consciousness and self-doubt. In a world where gay marriage was newly legalised, it felt like a symptom of queer culture trying and failing to find a battle, a flag to rally round. Slightly ruefully, Skilbeck summed up the process behind it as : “this is everything I’m thinking about blaaahhhh… and put it on stage.” But its chaotic logic was essential, too: “the work we make comes from where we’re at in our lives and what we’re thinking about. Self Service was us grappling with all these ideas – we couldn’t have made Joan without it.”
As Self Service showed, queer politics can be incredibly difficult to navigate. It’s highly politicised territory, fraught with internal tensions: but ‘queer’ can also be used so broadly that it becomes almost meaningless, used to describe anyone or any relationship that self-defines as such. But something about Joan‘s raw energy manages to make the complex, almost academic ideas around gender feel simple – LoUis CYfer’s performance is all about “problematising gender, unpicking gender”, but it also creates a space where “anyone can chip in.”
The performance I went to was marred by an astounding unpleasant man demanding a “proper story”, and refusing to get involved as the audience were egged on to create a soundscape of fanfares, horse’s hooves, and battling armies. He was ordered out, to slow claps and cheers from the audience – more like something from a Sheffield drag night than a theatre show. There are other advantages to using non-traditional actors, too:
“The performers I want to work with have something much more authentic and mischievous to offer because they’re already fluent in questions and thoughts around what gender identity is, and therefore they are the most exciting as collaborators I think.”
Skilbeck wants a completely new approach to casting, and a new way of thinking about theatre full stop. “I think drama schools will need to and should be pluralising the way they think about gender. Gender can be put on any physical body, so anyone can play anything. It’s not so much what is a female part or a male part, it’s what is that person going through, what is their situation. As soon as we free ourselves from thinking this is a play with seven men, two women, then those characters might open up.”
The idea that being more flexible on gender makes better theatre is borne out by Ellen MacDougall’s Othello. Cassio is played by a women, in a way that makes you read each of her lines in a new and interesting way. It’s not gender-blind casting – it’s gender-smart casting, that’s about new ideas not quotas. Skilbeck is practising what they preach, too, with a commission for the Young Vic this month: a reworking of Chekhov’s The Bear/The Proposal.
“Chekhov was an innovator, he aimed to effect social change. When these plays were written in 1888, at the end of the 19th century, people were really discussing the fundamental roles of women. And now, we’re in a national, maybe global discussion about gender identity, and trans and non-binary identity, ultimately discovering what men and women are, and how those terms might be dissolved.” The performance will use a mix of devised cabaret elements, and bits of the original to bring back their original social bite: “these plays are farces, but ultimately, for that, gender is farcical, it’s not the plays that are farces, it’s the world outside of those plays.”
It’s an approach that might well drive purists potty. But it’s also a really sharp approach to the weirdness of feminist plays. I saw Shaw’s feminist satire The Philanderer staged at The Orange Tree last year – and it didn’t do him any justice. Views which made him advanced in 1905 are (inevitably) sexist now, when the idea of women voting, smoking or wearing trousers is no longer inherently hilarious.
Skilbeck’s approach would have seemed impossibly radical even a few years ago, but as debates about gender and casting blow up, it starts to feel normal. Drag kings have edged closer to the mainstream, too: “when I first started it was much more underground, but now there’s lots of drag king work going on.” And it’s a genre that’s moving beyond stereotypes. “Drag kings are leading the way in a form that’s more political and aware – and fun, and sexy, but has an undercurrent of questioning. The drag that most interests me is not one gender performing another, it’s a space where you can completely explode every assumptions around gender and ask some new questions about it in one go.”
It’s a great summary of what drag can do – but it’s also an insight into what theatre can and should be exploring too. And with Skilbeck’s work, it’s not just leading the way – it’s charging forward, armour shining, sword in hand.
Joan is on at Ovalhouse from April 11th – 22nd, book tickets here. The Bear/The Proposal is on at Young Vic from Mar 15-25th – tickets are sold out, but you can join the returns queue from 7pm each night.