JOAN / Milk Presents

In ‘Mind, Modernity and Madness’, Liah Greenfeld writes that “A widely held idea (say, that hell awaits those who eat flesh on Fridays, or that all men are created equal) is no less a reality for people in the community holding the idea than the Atlantic Ocean”. Her bracingly forthright sociological study goes on to dismiss those who “diagnose entire cultures as psychotic...retroactively pronounce medieval saints schizophrenics”.

It’s a helpful thought to bear in mind when hearing the story of Joan of Arc. It’s a historical fact that a teenage peasant girl with no military background presided over a period of astonishing success for the French army in the 13th century -- while claiming to be taking directions from God. Accounts of the time stress her femininity, purity and delicacy, as a holy maiden who was literally heaven sent.

Lucy J. Skilbeck’s play makes her something a little tougher. Where medieval commentators were keen to emphasise that she only dressed as a man to preserve her chastity and safety, drag king LoUis CYfer embraces the masculinity of a woman who charged into battle in a specially made suit of armour.

Skilbeck’s focus on gender identity shows the power of religious zeal to overcome other culturally ingrained ideas, like the need for women to be meek and submissive. Medieval saints could (often literally) float over gender norms by dint of divine intervention. But medieval ideas on gender were also surprisingly modern: themes of gender transformation fill romances, while scientists believed that physical exercise, sexual desire or even just excessive heat could transform women into men. Skilbeck’s approach makes Joan’s approach both natural and deliberate: a series of tiny decisions, as well as one broad ecstatic creation. CYfer is an acclaimed performer on the drag cabaret scene, and this experience shows in a brilliant observed set of comic songs and physical performances. CYfer parodies all kinds of men, from a gruff father to a camp priest, and borrows their mannerisms: their self-consciousness heightened by the mirrors that surround the stage.

Joan becomes the world’s first drag king, a joyful anachronism heightened by CYfer’s Tank Girl t-shirt and 21st century song choices. Skilbeck’s story sticks close to its medieval source too, though, spelling out the painful details of victory in battle, then backlash from the religious establishment. In medieval times, as now, the freedom to step outside prescribed female roles is dependent on cultural mood. And when the mass shared belief in Joan’s divinity fades, so does Joan’s ability to perform a gender that’s artificial and hugely natural, at once. (AS)

Joan was on at Underbelly at Edinburgh Fringe, 5-28th August

‘Mind, Modernity and Madness’ by Liah Greenfeld

Ideas of gender transformation in medieval fiction