Next Wave Festival: The Voices of Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc’s fame resonates through the centuries. Everyone knows her by name, but do they know her true story? As part of the Next Wave Festival, Janie Gibson delves into what makes Joan’s tale still so resonant in ‘The Voices of Joan of Arc’.

The audience is seated in two long rows of risers on either side of the room. To one end, the violinist Xani Kolac sits and plays ethereal music. A ladder takes up space in the middle of the space. The lights dim and Gibson enters as Joan, barefoot and clad in a dress. Singing the first of several songs in an unknown language (Latin? Medieval French?) she lights four large candles in a candelabra above the ladder. And the story begins.

At first Joan is in virginal white. Once off the ladder, there’s a clever piece of staging as she delivers a monologue about her life and beliefs. Co-actor Daniel Han strips off her dress and buttons her into army-style khaki and boots. It’s a precursor of things to come.

Throughout the show, we are drip-fed tidbits about Joan’s life. Gibson, who wrote the play, is careful not to tell the story all at once. Facts come out one by one as she is interrogated by a cardinal (Daniel Han, in red). The audience is treated as if we were the jury. We learn the basics: that Joan grew up a peasant. That she met with the King of France. That she led the French troops to battle. And that she is now imprisoned by the Burgundians, as the English troops bay for her blood.

The title ‘The Voices of Joan’ references the voices in her head that commanded her to help save France. As the Cardinal begins the interrogation, he references the voices over and over, trying to get Joan to admit she made them up, that they were from the devil — anything but that they are real. I got chills as she stood her ground, declaiming that she would lead the French to victory in seven years’ time.

Joan and the Cardinal face off. As his shadow looms against the wall and he speaks of the Devil, he himself is reminiscent of Satan. There are times when the play feels straight out of the Middle Ages — and indeed, Gibson used much of the original transcription of Joan’s trial from the 15th century. At others, the feeling is modern: the Cardinal mocks her choice of clothes and her ‘tight little pants’.

The actors move throughout the space, utilising chairs and tables, and lighting candles, so that the audience is never bored. Musical interludes occur, including one utterly enchanting song where the two actors are joined by the violinist in a polyphonic trio. At one point, Joan grabs a sword and shows her mettle. I will admit I had a sudden flashback to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure — but hey, it’s understandable. Aside from reading Mark Twain’s biography of her, it’s all I know about Joan.

That’s what makes this production so worthy of seeing. Gibson’s take on Joan gently unfolds the story of someone who has been misunderstood through the ages, both in her own time and throughout history. She’s been a saint, a witch, a virgin and a soldier. Through it all, Gibson plays Joan as retaining her inner spirit. So when we at last watch Joan submit to the Cardinal, it’s devastating. The Cardinal heaps one last disturbing ignominy on her, a counterpart to when he helped her dress at the start. But Joan emerges for a final, powerful scene — unbowed and unbent.

The next time I’m in a church, I shall light a candle and think of Joan.

– Theresa
Co-founder of The Plus Ones, Theresa 

‘The Voices of Joan of Arc’ runs 3-13 May 2016 at the Northcote Town Hall. The venue is accessible.
Use the code ‘plusone’ on checkout to purchase discounted $20 tickets!

View our top picks of the Next Wave festival in our guide.

Disclosure: The Plus Ones were invited guests of Next Wave.
Photo credit: Pippa Samaya.