Review: JOAN, Waterside Workers Hall

Co-presented by the Rabble and Vitalstatistix, JOAN is sprinkled with unflinching theatrical moments.
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THE RABBLE’S JOAN. Photo by David Paterson

JOAN is co-presented by the Rabble and Vitalstatistix on a wintery night in Port Adelaide at Waterside Workers Hall. From the bar we’re ushered out into a laneway, meeting the outside momentarily, before being led back through to the black-box theatre by a set of side double-doors. A gauze projection screen hides the playing space from the audience.

It’s a meandering entrance to the work, as though comfort zones are deliberately being dislodged before the action even commences, Waterside reimagined from a different perspective, just like the legend of Joan of Arc.

A self-described ‘extraordinary and prescient work’ JOAN commences slowly with the use of large-scale projection and from there kicks into a single beatific action on repeat, plunging the viewer spasmodically into darkness time and time again, as though we are collectively blinking by candle light or gasping whilst drowning.

JOAN is sprinkled with unflinching theatrical moments like these. If the work achieves one thing with clarity it’s how Joan must have struggled against the metaphysical as well as the physical. All four female performers bring controlled, quiet force to their embodiments of Joan. Kate Davis’ costume design leaves little to the imagination and light-play on the bodies of the performers accentuates flesh, breasts and crevices. It’s a disarming technique from the first and used throughout the work. We are constantly reminded of Joan’s youth, her vulnerability and her sex.

The Rabble’s JOAN. Photo by David Paterson.

Martyn Coutt’s intelligent AV design gifts another character to the work; two projection screens, two different pictorial narratives displayed concurrently allowing the viewer the ability to look elsewhere in a work that is otherwise relentless, nuanced and graphic. A scene concerned with the shockingly invasive practice ‘virginity testing’ is captured by a to-camera close up of a performers face and offset by a quieter, still filmic, brutal act that occurs adjacent. JOAN is a mostly non-verbal display of endurance performance and stage ingenuity.

There is much to be marveled at, front and rear projection on a grand scale, a surprising array of props and effects, repetition as a form of torture – as an audience we are shown actions time and time again – endurance performance as performance art and a strong, pervasive soundtrack from a blend of pre-recorded and live sound, punctuation to visual vignettes. Words come much later in the work, by way of a powerful, beat-poet style release from all four performers that is at once relieving and painfully evocative.

The Rabble’s JOAN. Photo by David Paterson

The Rabble made JOAN and it premiered in Melbourne in 2017. The Rabble are a collective formed in 2006 ‘specifically to make work that wasn’t being produced in Australia: visually ambitious, political, feminist and formally experimental’. The creators themselves admit that ‘There are many things we couldn’t fit into this show’ and the end result is a focus on the physical form of JOAN the legend. This, coupled with use of melodrama and repetition drive a translation that almost misses the mark. Seemingly forgotten is mention of Joan’s conviction and bravery; serving as something akin to the head of the French army she led vast numbers of soldiers into combat, was able to attract the absolute confidence and unwavering loyalty of seasoned, fighting men and was wounded several times in the fighting. JOAN front and foremost is the story of a young woman, digitally raped who suffers a painful death by fire. The paradox here is in JOAN, the legend has been reduced to the sum of her physical self (burnt and otherwise) and her sexual experience.

Rating: 3 stars ★★★

The Rabble
Co-creators Kate Davis and Emma Valente
Set and Costume Design: Kate Davis
Text/Direction/Lighting and Sound Design: Emma Valente
AV Design: Martyn Coutts
Production and Stage Manager: Rebecca Etchell
Creative Producer: Josh Wright
Performers: Ra Chapman, Emily Milledge, Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sassman

17 – 22 July, 2018
Vitalstatistix, Waterside Workers Hall, Port Adelaide

Emma Bedford
About the Author
Emma Bedford is a writer, professional audio describer, and general life enthusiast. Emma is also a production manager for theatre, festivals and major events.