John (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Posted: January 25, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Annie Baker      Director: James Macdonald


Annie Baker is a writer who does not like to hurry. Her Pulitzer Prize winning play The Flick, staged at the National’s Dorfman Theatre in the Spring of 2016, found time for long silences and spells when the stage was left empty, but, in over three inaction-packed hours, she created characters and images that, almost two years later, remain hard to forget.

John, Baker’s follow-up, first seen off-Broadway in 2015, has a similar running time (two intervals are included, but the second is unexpectedly interrupted) and its arrival at the Dorfman has been eagerly anticipated. The writer’s ponderous style, bravely defying many theatrical conventions, is here again and her characters are once more distinguished by their ordinariness and their preoccupations with the humdrum. We are forewarned at the outset of what pace to expect, when an elderly lady slowly opens, manually, the traditional red velvet theatre curtain, wanders silently around the set and disappears upstairs. Unhurriedly, she performs her ritual with the curtain at the beginning and end of all three acts.

The elderly lady is Mertis (Marylouise Burke), owner, with her unseen husband of 13 years, of a boarding house in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It is the week after Thanksgiving and her only guests are just arriving. They are a young couple, less than truthful Jenny (Anneika Rose) and neurotic Elias (Tom Mothersdale). They have their secrets and their relationship is clearly strained.

From here, the play has virtually no plot, but Baker uses her characters and the setting to probe into the power of hidden forces to infiltrate our lives, making only slight suggestions of the paranormal. The boarding house is close to the scene of a great battle in the American Civil War and personal ghosts rub shoulders with those of the fallen. The characters reveal their inner selves slowly, through conversations so banal that even a recitation of the collective nouns for birds becomes interesting, but the writer punctuates the dialogue with much sly humour and throws in many amusing surprises

Chloe Lamford’s lovingly detailed set integrates with every theme in the play. A central staircase climbs high to the unheated, possibly haunted guest rooms; a dining area pretends to be Parisian; a grandfather clock marks the passing of the hours; solemn music emerges from an illuminated speaker; an upright piano and a Christmas tree take on lives of their own; dozens of figurines and children’s plastic dolls watch over, inanimate objects overseeing near-unanimated characters.

“Everyone knows someone named John” declares Mertis’ blind friend Genevieve (June Watson), perhaps alluding to John Doe, symbol of the American everyman. Specifically, John is Genevieve’s dead husband who haunts her and was one of the seven reasons that she offers for her insanity. Baker extends this and John comes to represent the gremlins that occupy all our brains, spying on us and directing our actions. These gremlins are intruders, perhaps manifested also in the sinister dolls, Mertis’ vacant gaze, or Genevieve’s unseeing stare and even we, the prying audience, are made to feel that we are in collusion.

Director James Macdonald tunes into Baker’s unique style comfortably and draws perfectly judged performances from all four actors. As well over three hours literally crawl by, a hypnotic spell is cast and the play etches itself into our minds. Eccentric and at times bizarre, John could be a theatre experience like no other, except, of course, for The Flick.

Performance date: 24 January 2017

Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

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