A Mesmerising Staging of John at The National Theatre:
Talented American playwright Annie Baker brings her writing back to the National Theatre after her previous success with the mesmerising, award-winning play The Flick in 2016.
James Macdonald’s production of John is set in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania situated close to the site of the bloody battlefield of he American Civil War. Depicted in minute detail by Chloe Lamford’s wonderfully superbly kitsch and rather creepy set. The stage is adorned with spooky looking china dolls, twinkling Christmas lights, a piano with a life of its own and a grandfather clock which sets the painstaking pace and time of this acutely charged piece. There is a great touch of manually drawn large red velvet curtains that punctuates each act.
What struck me most was the sense claustrophobia and hyperrealism, which in some respects I struggled with a little during the first act (bearing in mind the play is in 3 acts and runs for 3 hours and 20 minutes). Its slow-burning pace gently simmered, but by the act 2, I had become accustomed to the sticky silences and the smouldering atmosphere which bit by bit had me hooked. Without any real plot to speak of, it draws you into the eerie sense of being watched, the unknown life of inanimate objects, an intuit of madness, unfolding stories of unseen yet powerful men and the gradual disintegration of a young couple’s relationship.
The B & B is run by Mertis, played with infinite charm by Marylouise Burke, she’s an elderly, warm, kooky character with a mystic twist and a twinkle in her eye and a desire to tinker in the lives of her guests.
The arrival of Jenny (Anneika Rose) who writes questions for a quiz show and Elias (Tom Mothersdale) a geeky drummer, who is reeking in insecurity, albeit with some substance as Jenny’s previous infidelities with a man named John unfold. They are returning from a Thanksgiving lunch at her parents and Elias is hoping to take in the some of the local battlefield sights. Jenny is crippled by period pains and chooses to stay put and ends up spending time with Mertis and her friend Genevieve whilst Elias keeps to schedule.
June Watson imbues Mertis’s blind friend Genevieve with an unseeing stare and with a good dose of humour. She talks lucidly about her 7 reasons for madness and her strong belief that one of them is her husband John (there’s a pattern here) who is still setting her agenda from his grave, plus she is convinced of the mysterious powers that be in and around us, ‘Do you ever feel watched?’ she asks.
The women come together over a bottle of wine and embark on a quirky, sometimes intimate and acutely charged conversation. Director James Macdonald allows the characters to fully explore and uncover a wealth of possibilities, examining both their pasts and present whilst punctuating Baker’s unique writing style. On Elias’s return, the couple’s relationship is put to the final test.
This meticulous, beautifully performed, sometimes bizarre production touches on the supernatural, examines the minutiae of human relationships and entrapment in a startlingly funny and insightful way. With such a brilliant production, what could have felt like an era passed in what seemed minutes.
John is showing at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London, until 3 March. Box office: 020-7452 3000.