‘Feeling comfortable in one’s own skin’ is something everyone aspires to, but not everyone achieves for a multitude of reasons. Exploring one woman coming to terms with her identity and her place in the world, Lucy Skilbeck’s acclaimed play Joan returns once again for a UK tour. Playing the eponymous ‘Joan’ is Lucy Jane Parkinson – a respected professional on the drag king circuit who throughout Joan takes on the roles of various male characters too.
The show begins with Joan waiting for the special lady in her life, Catherine. But then the penny drops – Joan’s actually waiting for a ‘saint’ and that Parkinson is in fact THE JOAN – the ‘Maid of Orleans’ who would change the face of the Hundred Years War with England.
Parkinson imbues Joan with a warmth that’s hard to dismiss, instantly making the audience feel relaxed on their arrival and incorporating them – individually and in groups – for elements of her show. While Joan does follow for the most part the events of “d’Arc’s” military campaign, everything is given a timeless perspective – a girl with no military experience coming to terms with being a national heroine (until she becomes a victim of political expediency). And lest we forget, this is also a tale of a young woman whose dress sense and proclivities meant she never quite fitted in. The songs that accompany the male roles played are fun and in the case of the Dauphin, one of the highlights of the evening.
Bernard Shaw in his famous adaptation of Saint Joan highlights how every aspect of her individuality was an affront to the patriarchal mores of the time – a person who inadvertently aligned nationhood with its people, not its leaders; a person who circumvented the ecclesiastical claim on “God” and claimed to have her own relationship with the affairs of Heaven. However, the aspect that is most relevant to Skilbeck’s show is the dressing in men’s clothing. To our sensibilities there is nothing controversial in so-called cross dressing. Case in point, Elizabethan theatre was built on this practise. But until the 20th century, a woman ‘dressing as a man’ was a de facto criminal offence – as much a ‘dangerous’ business as someone impersonating a doctor or policeman and abusing the inherent power in that role. That’s the disparity of status and power that women have endured since time immemorial…
Parkinson’s modern-day Joan dresses for the most part in gender-neutral clothing, but behind every relationship she mentions, her gender – or rather others’ perception of how she wants to be seen and treated – is a problem for others. Regardless of binary labels, the notion that women should have all the ‘privileges’ that malehood automatically bestows is something that everyone can identify with.
© Michael Davis 2017
Joan runs at Ovalhouse until 22nd April 2017.