A famous 1989 artwork by Barbara Kruger features a black-and-white photograph of a woman, split down the middle with the right side in negative, overlaid with the red and white text “Your body is a battleground”. The woman in the photograph has strong lips and eyebrows, her hair is up and mostly out of frame. Her eyes bring to mind classic cinema, early 20th century projections of the feminine. Everybody has seen this artwork – it is a recognisable touchstone from a certain period of feminism, one where pop culture and the mass-distributed image was becoming a weapon of change. Laura Mulvey had published ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ in 1975, coining the term male gaze. The feminine-as-spectacle, borne out of cinema. Women had been constructed as visions rather than people, objects rather than subjects. Something to look at rather than listen to.
The Rabble’s newest work Joan at Theatre Works is set on the battleground-body of Joan of Arc. Her body, her words, her life and her image have been appropriated and reappropriated countless times in the (nearly) six centuries since she was burnt at the stake at the age of 19, arguably beginning with her retrial in 1456 and subsequent canonisation as a Catholic saint in 1909. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc was released 19 years later, a film which itself has since been canonised as a turning point in cinematic history. When we look at the women on stage, I often recognise them as Joan by their resemblance to the Joan of Dreyer’s film, rather than any painting or drawing (I haven’t seen the film).
In our culture, Joan is cast as a national heroine of France, a saint and a virgin, a visionary, a Marxist, a feminist, or (in the past) a heretic, cross-dresser, sinner. Who Joan was and what she did is almost not as interesting or revealing as how her story has been used to serve different agendas throughout history. We see ourselves in her, or rather, the image of her. The Rabble’s Joan invites critical reflection about the production of these images, to help us see the agendas at play.
We see a vision of a woman – or multiple women – stepping out of the light. The gesture, the moment, the image, is repeated in a different spotlight, then another, and continues to repeat. The back of a leg, two feet, the soft echo of a white dress. The repetition begins to forms patterns, mathematics. 16 white squares on the floor, 4 women stepping out of them.
In another gesture, a woman falls to her knees. We can see her legs, her belly, her breasts, revealed by shadows in the overhead light. Again, patterns, geometry. Music punctuates the scene, ticking piano. We soon see her faces and hear her breaths, the gasp of emotion, the ecstasy of divine communion. A sexual(ised) religiosity.
Later, a woman stands at a microphone in front of a video of her face. The grainy shadow of a voice interrogates her. Was she on her knees when she heard the voice of God? She is silent. The microphone is not used.
Cameras are used onstage throughout the performance, projecting a black-and-white image. We see the live conversion of chromatic humans to a binary of light and dark. The women are silent. It is as if they have cast themselves in Dreyer’s film, and must contort and reduce themselves to fit the cinematic format of the time.
Piety and femininity require the same kind of contortion. For The Rabble, images of piety and femininity are produced such that we cannot see the violence. Joan reveals it: women torture each other to produce images for the camera. We see one scene repeated over and over again, multiple takes of a woman falling on a pile of sticks, each take becoming more pained and horrific. Since Dreyer, this abusive relationship between women and cameras has become something of a tradition among ‘auteurs’. According to Roger Ebert,
“For Falconetti [who played Joan], the performance was an ordeal. Legends from the set tell of Dreyer forcing her to kneel painfully on stone and then wipe all expression from her face—so that the viewer would read suppressed or inner pain. He filmed the same shots again and again, hoping that in the editing room he could find exactly the right nuance in her facial expression.”
The burning of Joan of Arc. It presents a representational problem – how can such suffering possibly be understood, let alone conveyed? – and hence the work seems to keep coming back to it. Burning, we are reminded, was reserved for heretics, witches, the despicable. In the 21st century we are more comfortable with the idea of cremation, but then it represented a special kind of annihilation.
The women wear woven wreaths around their neck, dry reeds hanging over them ominously. They speak of life, departed. They are haunting, rustling garments, sacred and unknown. A connection with the earth, European indigeneity. When hung on an iron half-moon fire stoker, the wreath resembles a head of blonde hair from behind. When burned, the smoke gasps into the air, filling the theatre, our noses. Blackening.
When, at the end, we receive four monologues, there is a sigh of relief. Finally, text. Delivered as something like spoken word poetry, we hear four episodes in the life of Joan – in the church, on the battlefield, burned at the stake, ash. The genre is familiar and the meaning feels stable. It’s dramatic, harrowing, and offers some kind of narrative clarity: a gift to the audience.
There might be operating a conversation between aesthetics and text. Affect versus the phallogocentric Western-Christian-cis-hetero-patriarchy. Phenomena versus language. Do we need this kind of academic jargon to talk about The Rabble? It’s comforting, maybe. It’s harder to simply be in the experience and try to empathise.
You might find it both a highly critical and highly embodied experience. There is space for poetry, creative looking and listening. I loved it and was confused. I found it hard to piece together, but each piece was beautiful; a jagged mosaic. I delighted in the strangeness and the deliberateness. The Rabble are masters. I don’t know what else to say.