John at the National Theatre
Annie Baker treats her audience like lobsters in the pot, gradually raising the temperature so that we’re being boiled alive without even realising.
Much like with The Flick, where slow burn soul-searching could easily translate to a joke-drenched sitcom in less patient hands, John is made up of composite parts far more familiar than the eventual whole. Jenny (Anneika Rose) and Elias (Tom Mothersdale) are a couple in crisis, trapped in the last place you’d want to have a relationship tête-à-tête: a Gettysburg B&B drowning in kitsch, run by the cheerfully overbearing Mertis (Marylouise Burke). Add in the proprietor’s blind octogenarian friend Genevieve (June Watson) and we have the recipe for the kind of milquetoast indie dramedy normally found at Sundance.
Yet, when used by Baker, these potentially grating elements coalesce to become epic, not only in length – John is a mighty three and a half hours – but ground covered. Like Chloe Lamford’s glorious set – which can be creepy or desperately sad or warm and welcoming dependent on the moment – the writer’s plays are filled with dense nooks and crannies for the audience to sit in for a while, without one topic ever completely dominating. It’s what makes her work so rich and rewarding: the sheer number of ideas rippling beneath the banal surface.
Alongside the spine of Jenny and Elias’s relationship drama runs a largely religious-less discussion of watchers and being watched, the freedom and loneliness ageing can bring, and ghosts that may not exactly belong to the dead. Most potent, perhaps, is the idea of gendered empathy, how society expects women to care so much more deeply than men. Jenny is paralysed in the face of a doll from her childhood, an inanimate object imbued with so much life in her eyes that it appears to cause her physical pain when it is mistreated.
John doesn’t quite require the same level of hyper-realism from its performers as in The Flick – the setting and tone is too off for that to be warranted. Under the expert guidance of James Macdonald the quartet are quietly astounding. There is a nervousness to Burke’s upbeat demeanour that hints at a sad past only briefly touched upon in the script. Mothersdale is an entitled, borderline abusive person, but one clearly carrying a lot of repressed anguish. Rose is honestly delightful: charming and achingly empathetic but certainly no saint. And Watson is just a straight up hoot, especially in her end of Act Two surprise.
It can be hard to explain what exactly works about an Annie Baker play. She casts a spell that makes hours feel like minutes without sacrificing the weight and power such length brings, weaving thematically expansive narratives from everyday objects.
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
John is at the National Theatre from 17th February until 3rd March 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.