As we take our seats, Lucy Jane Parkinson’s Joan of Arc is a smiling, awkward bundle of nerves. This warrior and saint-to-be rounds her shoulders, crosses an arm protectively across her chest, sneaks furtive, sideways grins. She’s uncomfortable in her own skin, itching to shrug it off.
JOAN is less about the historical rise and fall of its eponymous heroine and more about the courage involved in asserting one’s identity – especially if that identity challenges society’s neat but stifling boxes. The extraordinary thing is that this one-woman show from Milk Presents, written and directed by Lucy J Skilbeck, covers the historical ground while also tracing a much more contemporary journey of discovery, all dressed up in a shimmering cabaret wrapping.
All the key historical moments are there, just skewed at an angle. We first meet Joan as an awkward and disappointing daughter, facing up to her father’s fond bafflement. Soon she’s witness to her mother’s murder by the English and boldly takes up Saint Catherine’s call to reclaim France. This turning point, though, is framed in terms of self-realisation as much as patriotic heroism. When Parkinson’s Joan talks about her communication with the heavens and “that voice that feels like sunrise”, face lit with joy and wonderment, it’s less about religious fervour than a fervent sense of belonging. In Saint Catherine’s eyes and in men’s clothing, Joan finds a new confidence. The word “ease” keeps falling from her lips as it drips from her gestures.
In her new disguise, Joan rocks up at Charles VII’s castle and convinces him to provide her with an army to drive the English out of France. Through military leadership, this Joan finds purpose and joy. From here on in we’re swept breathlessly through battles, victories, defeats and trials, all closely focused on Joan’s defiance of gender norms and growing sense of self. Emma Bailey’s simple design, which seats the audience in an intimate cabaret formation – all the better to facilitate the beautifully judged moments of interaction – is flanked by four full-length mirrors. This is unquestionably about identity.
There’s a persuasive musicality to Parkinson’s performance as she skilfully guides us through the show. It’s not just that she sings songs – which she does, brilliantly. The rhythms of the whole piece are delicately orchestrated, each beat falling with precision. Parkinson is able to conduct us from supreme silliness – willingly joining in with a giggling crescendo of war-drums and braying horse impressions – to stillness and solemnity. It’s only afterwards that the impressive control of these transitions becomes apparent; in the moment, we’re simply carried along by the changing cadences of Parkinson’s storytelling.
And like Ira Brand’s remarkable Bruce Springsteen performances in Break Yourself, JOAN is also a stunning bit of drag. Parkinson (herself a drag king champion) transforms into a series of very different men – Joan’s father, the Dauphin of France, the judge presiding over Joan’s trial – with little more than a change of jacket and the application of facial hair. But she also demonstrates how all gender is, at root, performance. Early on, it’s with humour, as she stuffs her bra down her shorts and struts around imitating the walk of a game male member of the audience. Later, as Joan is ordered to renounce cross-dressing or lose her life, it’s with a painful straining towards stereotyped femininity.
In these later scenes, JOAN takes an unexpected lurch into emotional territory. Again, the dramaturgical control is impressive, keeping us teetering between humour and heartbreak. Each knockout gag has a bruising follow-up. It’s a masterclass in managing both atmosphere and audience from everyone involved, but ultimately this is Parkinson’s show. And it’s her hopeful, spotlit figure that leaves a lasting impression, as the expectations that hemmed Joan in finally lie discarded on the floor.
JOAN is on at Contact in Manchester until 16th February 2017. Click here for more details.