France's sainted Joan of Arc has been reimagined as a non-binary icon in a controversial new play in London / © AFP
A new play in London has reinvented France's sainted Joan of Arc as a non-binary icon, who rejects female identity as they struggle to find a place in a man's world.
"I, Joan" had not even been performed at Shakespeare's Globe theatre in August when Time Out magazine called it "the most controversial play of the year".
The first images, showing Joan with breasts bound, were enough to set social networks alight.
Hardly a month goes by in Britain without a battle about gender identity and the play has given all sides in the debate fresh ammunition.
The play about France's patron saint, the 'maid of Orleans' who repelled the English in the Hundred Years War in the 15th century, was written by Charlie Josephine, with Joan played by Isobel Thom.
Both Josephine and Thom were born female but define themselves as non-binary.
The staging of the play at the landmark theatre on the South Bank of the River Thames is firmly contemporary, with no period costume.
The wife of the king's eldest son or dauphin, the later king Charles VII, is played by a black woman. Modern choreography defines the fight scenes.
But Joan's story is still told -- from meeting the dauphin and fighting battles to standing trial and being burnt at the stake in 1431.
The question of gender runs throughout.
"To be born a girl and you are not a girl. God, why did you put me in this body?" a short-haired Joan asks at one point, wearing men's clothes.
Joan rejects the dresses that people expect them to put on.
"I am not a woman. I do not fit that word," they say. One of her friends suggests: "Maybe your word has not been invented yet?"
Her allies then suggest she uses the pronoun "they", prompting huge cheers from the audience. Opponents in the play call her "she".
At Joan's trial for heresy, one sentence is repeated by the judges: "Do you think it is well to take men's dress? Even if it is unlawful?"
"What are you so afraid of?" Joan replies, laughing.
"I am not a woman. I am a warrior."
- Controversy -
Feminists such as Heather Binning, founder of the UK-wide Women's Rights Network, are against the portrayal.
'I, Joan' is being performed at Shakespeare's Globe theatre / © AFP
"She experienced what she experienced because she was a woman. You can't change that," she said.
"This lobby group is hijacking all our inspirational women from history. This ideology is insulting to women.
"There's a lot of women we don't know about because history was written by men for men."
But Josephine and Thom defended the play.
"I forgot I was blaspheming a saint," Josephine wrote in The Guardian.
"Nobody is taking historical Joan away from you," insisted Thom on Twitter. "Nobody is taking away your Joan, whatever Joan may mean to you...
"This show is art: it's an exploration, it's imagination."
Shakespeare's Globe took the same approach, likening the interpretation in "I Joan" to the approach of the celebrated English playwright.
"Shakespeare did not write historically accurate plays. He took figures of the past to ask questions about the world around him," it said.
"Our writers of today are no different. History has provided countless and wonderful examples of Joan portrayed as a woman.
"This production is simply offering the possibility of another point of view. That is the role of theatre: to simply ask the question 'imagine if?'"
- Zeitgeist -
Re-examining Joan's life through a contemporary lens is also taking hold in her native France.
"It's the Zeitgeist," said Valerie Toureille, a university professor specialising in the Hundred Years War and the author of a 2020 book on Joan.
"It doesn't shock me. There are women who decided to take a different path from both men and women. That's the case with Joan of Arc," she added.
Asked about Joan's wearing of men's clothes, she said: "It was for protection against rape and it's much easier to ride a horse as a man than looking like an Amazon."
Nevertheless, for Toureille, men's clothes on Joan was the key issue at the heresy trial.
"This is material proof that backs up the religious argument. For men of the Church, Joan in these clothes went beyond her status as a woman."