There was a moment about ten minutes into Joan, The Rabble’s remarkable theatrical dissection of Joan of Arc, when I flashed back 24 hours. The previous evening I was ensconced in the plush seats of Her Majesty’s Theatre for the Melbourne premiere of the Disney musical extravaganza Aladdin.
I’m the first to admit that musicals aren’t my thing. I’ve enjoyed a few of them, but mostly I’m baffled by the passions they engender. Add Disney cartoons to the mix and my pop culture credentials crumble. The Lion King, despite Julie Taymor’s spectacular production, bored me witless. Aladdin has a sharper and slicker book, so it didn’t bore me: but aside from Michael James Scott’s high-camp performance as the Genie, which momentarily yanked the show beyond its glittering banality, I mostly sat there trying to silence my inner killjoy.
I watched the flats going up and down, the lightning costume and set changes, all the dazzle and flash of million-dollar showbiz, and thought how … naive it all looked. Here we are, watching a work of crass Orientalism, The Mikado of our time, in which a cast of Australian and New Zealand performers get to show off their American accents. And meanwhile we’re bombing the Middle East. What does that mean?
Hush, said I, it’s theatre for kids. Really? What are all these adults doing here then? And furthermore, here we are watching a feisty princess strike out for gender equality while the women in the show dance around in veils as supporting decoration. Look, they even perform a lap dance for Aladdin! And said feisty princess solves all her problems by embracing “traditional values” and marrying her prince!
Theatre, my brain hissed at me. What a foolish, empty pretence it all is, really. But watching the extraordinary opening sequence of Joan, my brain finally went quiet. All it said was yes.
Joan is a shapeshifting production, oscillating between theatre, dance, visual art and spoken-word poetry. Most of it is performed without text. Like dance, the logic of its dramaturgy relies on metaphorical and visual associations rather than narrative. It’s not about Joan of Arc so much as a meditation on the images and legends that have accrued around her.
The Maid of Orléans, the peasant girl turned visionary virgin warrior, became an iconic symbol of French military ambition against the English. In 1431, after helping Charles VII gain the throne, she was captured by Anglo–Burgundian forces and tried for witchcraft, heresy and dressing like a man. At 19, abandoned by the French king, she was burned at the stake. Her influence as an emblem of French nationalism continued well into the 20th century: although she had long been considered a saint, she was only officially canonised in 1920.
Saint Joan is the subject of countless paintings, films and stories, but The Rabble isn’t interested in presenting us with a potted hagiography. They give us a Joan in monochrome, a theatre in which silent black-and-white film is loosed from its moorings and released into three dimensions. At the centre of Joan is a confronting examination of how the violence of the state is exerted on the female body.
The Rabble is the brainchild of co-directors Kate Davis (set and costume design) and Emma Valente (sound, lighting and writer). For the past decade the company has refined an aesthetic of theatrical poetry that is unlike any other in Australia. For comparison, you’re forced to reach for the dance theatre of Pina Bausch, or the radical, desolating visual language of Romeo Castellucci.
The company creates explicitly feminist works, taking iconic European texts and representing them through a female-centric lens. The results of their continual restless experiment have been brutal, fascinating, spectacular and beautiful. They create extreme theatre that has attracted as many condemnations and walkouts as plaudits. Their risk-taking has sometimes tested even my patience to the edge: I remember a particular show where I was almost suffocated by boredom and irritable impatience. But even in The Rabble’s failures there was always something astonishing.
Joan is another step forward. I’m pretty sure they’re not a company that aims for perfection – their philosophy is perhaps inherently hostile to such a concept – but the first 20 minutes of Joan are about as close to perfection as I’ve seen on a stage.
The show begins with a total blackout. Disconcertingly three-dimensional globes of white light appear and vanish in dimensionless space. Then a gigantic close-up of a staring eye is suspended in darkness just before the audience, slowly blinking open and shut, staring at nothing. Another eye is projected at the back of the space. It’s disorienting, dizzying: there is an immense sense of depth, but no perspective.
At last we glimpse a human form, a woman dressed in white in an attitude of supplication, who almost at once vanishes back into darkness. Another woman (or is it the same woman?) in the same pose, the same white costume. Another. What follows is a precise geometric choreography of four women (Luisa Hastings Edge, Emily Milledge, Dana Miltins and Nikki Shiels) who appear and vanish in darkness, holding out their arms, dropping to their knees.
Valente’s sound, a melodic piano score punctuated by electronic crackling and the sobbing breaths of the performers, is visceral, all-encompassing. This entire sequence is a mimesis of the ecstatic interiority of divine vision, which paradoxically embodies and rejects corporeality. It’s astonishingly beautiful, an enveloping sensory experience that stretches the language of theatre into dance or visual art.
Then, quite suddenly, this totalising spiritual illusion is brutally stripped away. Now the stage is nakedly lit, its walls bare and poverty-stricken. We are watching four individual women, each dressed identically, in a banal, anonymous space.
They enact tableaux that recreate and distort the iconography around Joan of Arc, in a series of fleeting, disturbing encounters between the four performers. They use props such as the grass skirts that were tied around those who were burned at the stake to make them more flammable, a pronged iron instrument that is an implement of torture or control, faggots of wood. Until a crackling, whispery recording of a few lines from Joan’s interrogations by the English (not immediately recognisable as speech, and projected as text at the back of the stage) there are no words at all.
These mute sequences explore Joan’s ambiguity as a masculinised woman. It’s worth remembering here that Joan’s dressing as a man, thus disturbing the patriarchal order, was as serious a charge as the accusations of witchcraft. The violence that forces Joan back to her proper subjugated femininity is presented as an inevitable result of her embrace of church and state: there is, for example, a confronting enactment of a virginity test (performed by Joan, on Joan). All these Joans are equally victims and instruments of state power.
The actors don’t speak until the end, when each in turn addresses us from a microphone at the front of the stage. The release of language after so much silence is a relief, and the passion of the performances is undeniable, but this is the weakest part of the show. Written by the cast members as well as Valente, the monologues foreground the performers’ imaginative engagement with Joan. It feels like the right dramaturgical movement, bringing us into the present moment, but the language doesn’t possess the unsettling power and ambiguity of what has gone before.
Despite this stumble, Joan is among the best shows The Rabble has made. It’s (literally) visionary theatre. Theatre for grown-ups.
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