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John review at National Theatre, London – ‘exquisite, disturbing and startlingly funny’

Scene from John at National Theatre, London. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey Scene from John at National Theatre, London. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
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We all know that unsettling sensation of being watched – the prickling in the back of the neck, the certainty that eyes are silently fixed upon us, only for us to discover, on turning to look, that no one is there.

Then there’s that creepy feeling of an unseen presence in an empty room, or the strange power of some inanimate objects to appear to take on a life of their own. Put all that inside a theatre, where the dynamic between watcher and watched, real and imaginary is so acutely charged, and it becomes thrillingly spooky and intensely fascinating.

That’s just one achievement of John, by US writer Annie Baker. It’s intricate, complex, profound, delivered at Baker’s hallmark painstaking pace, hyper-realism rubbing up against the supernatural. It’s about history and narrative, truth and lies, faith, ghosts, God and love.

It’s also, more simply, a painful, compassionate account of relationship breakdown. It questions what anchors us to our temporary existence, and the stories we tell ourselves, and each other. James Macdonald’s production, meticulously designed by Chloe Lamford, is exquisite, disturbing – and startlingly funny.

Young couple Jenny (Anneika Rose) and Elias (Tom Mothersdale), heading back to Brooklyn after spending Thanksgiving with Jenny’s parents, stop off at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – site of Civil War conflict and carnage. Every wall and surface at this weird establishment is crammed with knickknacks and glassy-eyed dolls. A self-playing pianola bursts into chirpy melody without warning. The lights on the Christmas tree fizz and sputter, while a host of china angels gaze blankly and beatifically.

And though the elderly proprietor, Mertis (a bird-like, beady-eyed Marylouise Burke) is warm, the bedrooms are freezing. Elias is eager to visit the battlefield and cemetery. Jenny, stricken with menstrual cramps, cries off, and instead encounters Mertis’s friend, Genevieve (June Watson), who is blind, yet peculiarly perceptive.

There’s a strong flavour of ritual and mysticism as the three women share wine and confessions. A similarity in names in not all Jenny and Genevieve have in common. John was Genevieve’s ex-husband, whom she believes still haunts her; Jenny has cheated with a lover named John. Have she and Elias stumbled into an enchantment conjured by the enigmatic Mertis, who draws a faded velvet curtain across the action at the start and close of each act, and controls time by manipulating the hands on a grandfather clock? Does Mertis’s unseen, dying husband, whom she insists is in the next room, actually exist?

Neatniks may find the play frustrating, but it is wildly stimulating, the wealth of possibilities beneath its unhurried surface dizzying, and as rich and mysterious as life itself. It connects with a deep, elemental fear and wonderment that is at the heart of humanity – the kind of awe you experience gazing into a limitless night sky.

 

The Flick review at the Dorfman, National Theatre – ‘an understated epic’

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Verdict
Dazzlingly rich exploration of life, love, and the supernatural from the uncompromising US playwright Annie Baker
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