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Joan of Arc to be portrayed as nonbinary in new production at London's Globe Theatre

“People and communities deserve to be championed, and there’s no limit to the number we can do that for,” actor Isobel Thom told NBC News.
Joan of arc
A statue of Joan of Arc in Orleans, France.Guillaume Souvant / AFP via Getty Images file

Legendary French heroine Joan of Arc will be portrayed as nonbinary in a radical departure from the historic figure's usual depiction at London’s Globe Theatre.

A patron saint of France, who is beloved for her role in the Siege of Orleans between 1428 and 1429 — a major French military victory over the English during the Hundred Years War — the new interpretation of her life will be performed at the theater that was home to famed British playwright William Shakespeare.

Nonbinary actor Isobel Thom will play the role in “I, Joan,” scripted with “they” and “them” pronouns by Charlie Josephine, who is also nonbinary, the Globe said in a news release. It will directed by Ilinca Radulian, who identifies as a woman.

“Our story of Joan is full of joy and love and hope and magic and revolution,” Thom told NBC News by email Saturday.

“Storytelling and art is a platform to share experiences, to stretch imaginations, to excite and inspire, to explore language, and to represent. People and communities deserve to be championed, and there’s no limit to the number we can do that for,” Thom added.

In a separate statement, Michelle Terry, the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, said the theater was “not the first to present Joan in this way, and we will not be the last.”

“Regarding the use of pronouns, ‘they’ to refer to a singular person has been traced by the Oxford English Dictionary to as early as 1375, years before Joan was even born” she added.

The production aims to “question the gender binary” and “offer the possibility of another point of view,” Terry Said.

“Theaters produce plays, and in plays, anything can be possible. Shakespeare did not write historically accurate plays. He took figures of the past to ask questions about the world around him,” she said.

Located on the bank of the River Thames in London, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is a modern reconstruction of the famous playwright's original theater, which stood on the same site and was completed in 1599. 

Destroyed by fire and then closed by a public order after the English Civil War, today’s Globe is the third reconstruction of the theater, and welcomes 1.25 million visitors a year. 

Original performances of Shakespeare’s plays, like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Twelfth Night,” would have included male actors playing women, and male actors playing women playing men. 

Born a peasant in medieval France, Joan of Arc believed God had chosen her to lead her country to victory in its long-running war with England. She led the French to a stunning victory in the battle of Orleans but was later captured by English forces, who burned her at the stake in 1431 when she was 19.

The gender identity and sexuality of Joan of Arc has been a subject of intense academic debate for decades in France and England. In the 1930s, British writer Vita Sackville West was the first to write a biography in which she hypothesized that Joan might have been a lesbian. 

But some lawmakers and activists have criticized the decision to make the saint nonbinary.

British legislator Rosie Duffield called the decision “misogyny,” while Sophie Walker, co-founder of The Activate Collective, which raises money for women to run in elections, also tweeted: “When I was a little girl, Joan of Arc presented thrilling possibilities about what one young girl could do against massed ranks of men. Rewriting her as not female and presenting it as progress is a massive disappointment.”

Thom did not respond to the comments directly, but in a separate tweet, they urged people to watch the play before casting judgement on it.

Others however, praised the decision, including the actor and composer Olivia Mace, who called the idea "interesting" in a Twitter post. "Allow it to be explored. It won’t hurt anyone," she wrote.

“​​Imagining Joan as a they/them is an exercise in placing Joan in the modern day, connecting Joan’s struggles against the forces of oppression with today. A play doing this is not saying ‘I believe Joan was non-binary.’ It is posing a question of ‘what if Joan was?’” non-binary writer Diane Anderson also tweeted. 

“This is why things like ‘Hamilton’ work as art — we know that Hamilton and his crew were white men. Aaron Burr and Leslie Odom Jr. look nothing alike. Thomas Jefferson did not have an afro. But we can imagine it because that’s what art does,” Anderson added.

A statement on the Globe’s website also affirmed its commitment to “becoming an inclusive and diverse organisation.” It said the theater "is unequivocally pro-human rights,” and “trans men and women and non-binary identities exist and are valid.”