John – National Theatre

John, National Theatre

2017 was a great year for new writing and in the next few months, judging panels will have the unenviable task of trying to decide whether Oslo, Ink or The Ferryman deserves the accolade of best new play, knowing that whoever they chose, will rob the other two. But now three weeks into January, the first new play of 2018 is opening at the National Theatre. Following the success of The Flick which had it’s UK premiere in the Dorfman in 2016, Annie Baker’s latest play, intriguingly called John and first performed in New York in 2015, makes its London debut in the same space. Baker’s work is a subtle examination of modern ideas of self-worth, often bringing characters together at times of transition, trapping them in a contained, often claustrophobic space, as they try to determine a way forward.

Troubled young couple, Jenny and Elias, arrive at a local bed and breakfast for a few days as they pause their trip to visit some local Civil War sites. It’s the week after Thanksgiving and along with the decorations, the strange little house, run by host Mertis, is filled with dolls and ephemera that clutter every available surface. During their stay the couple get to know more about the attentive owner, and, as their own relationship begins to strain, confide in her hoping to discover what their future should hold.

No one should go to a Baker play expecting plots stuffed with drama and activity, instead she writes slow-burn stories that centre almost entirely on character and theme. The National Theatre’s production may have so far managed to shave 10 minutes off the run-time but John is a monster show of 3 hours and 20 minutes with two intervals. Yet, there is considerable engagement with the world Baker creates, and you feel yourself pulled into their discussions about love and purpose. Baker has a particular ear for realistic dialogue and while she out Pinters Pinter with elaborately long pauses and deliberate stillness, her writing genuinely reflects the small moments of awkwardness or tension between sentences that accurately reflect the circularity and stilted nature of real conversation.

Despite its title, this is a play about women and for much of the time it is the female characters whose perspectives we hear and sympathise with. But they are complicated and, as we discover in the plot, not always entirely moral people whose bad behaviour is called into question. Purposefully the three women are nothing alike, representing very different kinds of living as small-town collides with the big city, work and home, glamour and comfort crash into one another while still finding a semblance of emotional common ground between them.

And it is the power of three that seems to fill Baker’s work, as many of John’s scenes are an ongoing dialogue between three people, often those with a close relationship and an alien third. Initially it is the central characters, Jenny, Elias and Mertis, but increasingly as the central couple’s stability begins to fracture we see other trios deliberately and, sometimes unexpectedly united – one of Baker’s skills is to suggest that there are always three people even when you only see two.

For instance, early on, the audience discovers why Jenny and Elias’s relationship is so precarious and all of their conversations, including muffled offstage arguments, have the presence of a third party hanging between them. Even in the occasional spots of happiness, the reality of their predicament intrudes upon them, borne out by other aspects of Baker’s writing, not only the mysterious absence of Mertis’s husband who she claims is in the house yet unwell, but also the continual references to the universe, to spirituality, ghosts and God. Never fully elucidated or woven successfully into the text, these themes nonetheless reiterate the idea of the constant third in any scenario, someone who silently watches.

The idea of being observed is raised several times, and in a particularly neat duologue between Mertis and Elias both recall feeling observed as a child, concluding that this presence was guiding and protecting them. Jenny feels differently, and in a separate conversation triggered by seeing the same toy in Mertis’s house, has a more unnerving and judgemental interaction with a doll she claimed used to make bad things happen to her which she would have to make amends for. Baker uses this to reinforce her idea about individual conscience and self-worth, showing that Jenny in particular requires external validation for her actions even if those are projected into a lifeless figurine.

For the second time in as many weeks the private home turned into a hotel becomes an important setting, used to create a tone of uncertainty and underscore the tension to be drawn from the arrival of strangers into someone’s else’s environment. From Pinter’s seaside boarding house in last week’s The Birthday Party designed by the Quay Brothers, to this sinister establishment in Gettysburg America, the displacement of characters is reinforced by inserting them into a world far from their own. For all its domestic warmth and cosy appeal, Chloe Lamford’s detailed set suggests at best a quirky owner, and a worst something considerably more sinister beneath the chintz and endlessly staring figures that make Brooklynites Jenny and Elias seem out of place.

Lamford has created a strange little world of domestic harmony crossed with eccentricity, which fills the centre of the room with sofas and a bizarre self-playing piano, while at one end is an enormous window that looks out onto the beautifully coloured sunsets, lit by Peter Mumford, that offer freedom and a slightly obsessive idea of the natural beauty of the universe which is a frequent refrain in the text. At the opposite end of the room is “Paris”, Mertis’s arrangement of bistro tables for her guests to use.

Director James Macdonald allows all of these elements to coexist in a jumbled harmony that reflects the cluttered set and emotions of the characters. Nothing is rushed which, to the despair of some audience members, means things move very slowly across the evening, giving the protagonists time to think, to sit and to reflect which is so true to life but so rarely permitted on stage for fear of losing the audience’s attention. It’s such a shame, however, that too many long conversations happen at the far sides of the stage meaning a good proportion of the Dorfman audience cannot see anything.

Having a proscenium arch show always feels like such a waste in this most flexible of theatres, and while necessary for this one, poor blocking often puts all the characters out of sight of anyone seated at the sides. You are warned about restricted views of course, but the scenes could be positioned a little better and given that a lot of people moved seats in the interval, there are clear benefits in rethinking a couple of those extreme side locations before press night (although of course critics will be seated where they can see best).

Mertis the B&B owner is a fascinating creation, at once cosy and welcoming, thoughtful and kind to her clearly cold and fractious guest, but with an underlying sinister tone that would allow the character to be interpreted in several different ways and leaves plenty of unanswered questions about who she is. Marylouise Burke decides to make her a semi-sweet all-American mother-figure, fussing about the home and plying her guests with biscuits.

Yet she is a mass of contradictions, refusing to turn on the heating at night despite a shivering Jenny having to sleep in the living room. Mertis also makes dismissive references to some of her rooms having a mind of their own, and Burke continually makes it seem that Mertis is hiding facts if not outright lying to cover up something unsavoury. Even the strange absence of her second husband is dismissed so suspiciously by Burke that the audience begins to wonder if there is something much stranger happening in this house, but the joy of Burke’s sweetness and light approach is that the audience is never quite sure if something much more terrifying is about to occur.

Anneika Rose plays Jenny as a modern woman keen to make amends but unwilling to continually prostrate herself for past indiscretions. Its clear she has made the trip to Gettysburg to placate Elias but uses the time to try to discover her future. Rose makes Jenny smart and friendly, fascinated by ideas about the enormity of the world that come through conversations with Mertis and her friend Genevieve. We see her become increasingly dissatisfied with Elias, and, despite her conscious attempts to be close to him, she actively seeks time away from him, their room and their joint activities, a separation that Rose charts convincingly.

Elias is a more neurotic character than his girlfriend, and Tom Mothersdale allows much of that to stem from an idea of moral superiority, of being the wronged man. Fascinated by the Civil War, and carrying the burden of an unconventional hippy Jewish childhood, it isn’t until much later in the play that Elias is given the chance to reveal his own inner turmoil, and Mothersdale takes the opportunity to balance the scales with an important and well delivered discussion with his hostess about whether to persist with or end his relationship, tempering his unyielding exterior with moments of doubt and sympathy.

John has its faults and some of the themes aren’t as clearly elucidated as they need to be to draw all of the strands together satisfactorily, but Baker’s plays are so rich with detail and full of insight into the way people really behave that they draw you into their world for the duration. With plenty of new plays yet to come in 2018, Baker has set the tone with an intriguing examination of the fear of being watched and judged that prevents people from living the life they should.

John is at the National Theatre until 3 March and tickets start at £15. The National Theatre also offers £20 tickets for the week ahead in its Friday Rush scheme.

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

9 responses to “John – National Theatre

  • Long Day’s Journey into Night – Wyndhams Theatre | Cultural Capital

    […] will get their final turn in the spotlight before its conclusion. Like Annie Baker’s new play John, also clocking in at well over three hours, there is something magnetic about each conversation in […]

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    Interesting and, as usual, thorough analysis and I agree it was a most absorbing play. Perhaps a measure of its effectiveness is that I managed to come to rather different conclusions about certain characters, just as two people might about, say, mutual friends. The similarities to The Birthday Party were striking though perhaps highlighted by the fact that the Pinter play has had a prominent revival; and, perhaps for the same reason, I made a connection with Belleville; not just because we are shown a relationship under stress in a strange town but also because the couple in both plays was of a type that, we used to say, had a duty to stay together not because they might make each other happy but because by staying with each other they save two innocent people from misery. I didn’t find the same ‘sympathy’ with Jenny that you did. At first I found Elias intolerable – a needy, weedy type who seems to think nothing should ever go wrong for him; but as the play developed I began to get insights into how he got that way. This was very little to do with the hints of an abusive upbringing and more to do with the even stronger hints that his partner was not only lying to him but inviting him to consider the possibility that his own issues with trust were behind his feelings of unease. Here, again, are echoes of Pinter who explores this issue comprehensively in Betrayal. While I can empathise with Jenny’s lacking the courage to be completely open, there is something viciously undermining about betraying someone and going on to accuse your victim of imagining things you know to be true.

    I think you hit the nail on the head, though, with your assessment of Baker’s ‘insight into the way people really behave’. There are a few loose ends in the narrative – not least the question of how someone who struggled to walk upstairs managed to maintain such a large and copiously furnished establishment – but even some of those just added to the air of enigma. I was particularly struck by the mysterious Jenny Wade room. Was it meant to suggest Jenny was a civilian casualty – a normal person in an environment full of oddballs. I liked the performances, too. I couldn’t help thinking Mertis was a role that would have suited the late, great Ruth Gordon to a T, and Marylouise Burke is superb in it. Tom Mothersdale is always good and here he gives performance to match his Tom in Headlong’s The Glass Menagerie. The other two performances were also strong in a fine evening marred only by, as you say, unwise staging and, I thought, the unfortunate decision to put a very short ‘comfort break’ after Act 2. This, in my opinion, is seldom a good idea – either have two proper intervals as in grand opera or just put lengthy break in wherever appropriate – and here it rather broke the spell of a very good piece. I now regret even more that I missed The Flick but I’m very glad I saw this.

    I promised a brief report on James Graham’s play about Hull’s city of culture experience and the winding down therof so, for want of anywhere more specific to post it, here goes.

    While I suspect we’d agree that This House and Ink are a class above The Culture – a Farce in Two Acts, I’m not sure we’d agree about the relative merits of The Culture and Labour of Love. I actually preferred the former for the simple reason that nobody really expects a farce to feature plausible narrative and rounded characterisation, the lack of which I found to be a major weakness in Labour of Love. The Culture has its weaknesses – nobody would seriously advance Graham as a contender for Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy crown – but as long as the laughs come thick and fast those weaknesses are easily overlooked. A lot of the mistaken identity/unfortunate coincidence events that are the staple of farce would have ended up in Ayckbourn’s waste basket as unusable; and if I’d thought of some of the jokes I’d have rejected them as too weak even for bar room banter (Kim Car-Crashian, fgs!). But where it was good, it was very good. My favourite was the story of the resident, a professional sign writer, complaining that his unwanted furniture, left in front of his house for removal and recycling, had been mistaken for an installation and had not only not been removed but had attracted crowds queuing to take selfies in front of it. This situation is gloriously milked throughout the play – most effectively when the solicitor asks if he has told people the thing wasn’t art. “Yes. I made a proper sign and everything, put it up outside on the street. It says ‘This is not art’”/ “And?”/ “People think that’s art…That’s more popular than the furniture thing now; we had a coach trip over from Leeds at the weekend. It got four stars in The Guardian”

    The performers put in good shifts with Jordan Metcalf and Nicola Reynolds each playing two major roles ans a minor one to boot. The logistics of it almost defied belief – At one point Reynolds, as bubbly volunteer Janice, exits after being half stripped and covered in paint to be photographed and reappears seconds later as sober senior civil servant Imelda.

    The attendance was, I thought, rather disappointing. I know it was late in the run but other shows at Hull Truck sold out every performance. However, the auditorium was about 80% full so by most standards it must be classed a success. I think the chances of its coming to London – or anywhere else – are pretty much nil so it looks like you’ll have to be happy seeing Quiz again.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John – sorry it’s taken so long to reply. I’m glad you enjoyed John, and its interesting to note the poor staging choices are still there. As I said, this is not something the critics would pick up on because they’re always given the best seats.

      As an overall experience I preferred The Flick but John isn’t far behind. Baker is a very naturalistic writer and there is a strong rhythm to her work that belies the simplicity and apparent emptiness of the conversations. This was the more enigmatic of the two plays certainly but just a tad less satisfying for me.

      Thanks for the review of The Culture as well, your view pretty much reflects the main critics who saw it, and it may not travel well as you say.

      I haven’t actually seen This House, I managed to miss both the original National run as well as its West End transfer, but I’ll see it in Cambridge next month to review the touring production. And then, as you mention, a re-run of Quiz a couple of weeks later.

      Hope you enjoy your next trip. If you can get a ticket for The York Realist then that comes highly recommended.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    Your reply is pretty prompt, thanks. I look in fairly often anyway to see if you’ve reviewed anything I’ve seen (though usually you see things before me so I have to wait before reading). I saw Dry Powder (another Jenny but not nearly as good a play) before coming home for just a couple of days. I’m back tomorrow for The House of Bernarda Alba (glad to see the Cervantes Theatre have quickly revived that – I was really sad when I thought I’d missed it). On Saturday I’ll be trying for day seats for Frozen but if I fail I’ll dash across to Earlham St on your recommendation. There’s always a reasonable chance of standing at the Donmar. On Sunday I’m going to see if I can get a Stalls day seat for Long Day’s Journey into Night. I have a seat in the gods next month that I bought just to make certain I didn’t miss it but I’ll be trying for a better view as well if I can get one within my budget. I don’t often spend five days out of seven in London but I had train vouchers that expire at the end of Feb and the Travelodge New Year Sale made it very practical to treat myself.

    I agree about Baker’s gifts. I hope Radio 3 picks this one up as I think it will work very well on the wireless – especially as I now have a mental image of what happens visually. You say, by the way, that the restricted view is acknowledged but I’m not so sure. My ticket says ‘Circle Side View’ whereas ‘Restricted view’ would be more honest. I could see the ‘Paris’ side but still have no idea what was on the other wall. Perhaps they did make a few changes after previews – I could just about see Genevieve sitting silently while Elias poured his heart out to Mertis and if her chair had been slightly more to stage left she’d have been invisible – but it was still pretty poor.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John – I was on the opposite side and couldn’t seeing anything happening in ‘Paris’. Only the most central table was visible despite a long conversation taking place in the far corner. Directors do need to block for the space, so they should really be checking the view from all over the auditorium. Some restriction is reasonable, but 10 or 15 minutes at a time isn’t, especially when there was no real reason to use the stage extremities for so long.

      Sounds like you’re in for a very interesting weekend and I look forward to your thoughts on all of those shows, especially Frozen which I had a interesting reaction to. I saw all of them, and my Bernarda Alba review from Cervantes is on the Reviews Hub website. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

  • Hadestown – National Theatre | Cultural Capital

    […] Child and Travesties in 2018. In the opposite direction, London has snapped-up Annie Baker’s John and two-part sensation The Inheritance currently enjoying an extended West End run after its UK […]

  • The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre | Cultural Capital

    […] Broadway, Macdonald knows well how to marshal these long discursive plays. As with Annie Baker’s John and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – both of which Macdonald has directed in […]

  • Appropriate – Donmar Warehouse | Cultural Capital

    […] impression of their family are also reminiscent of Annie Baker whose plays The Flick and John have been widely celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. As a writer, Jacobs-Jenkins sees clearly […]

  • The Antipodes – National Theatre | Cultural Capital

    […] The Antipodes is at least an hour shorter than her previous works in the UK – The Flick and John – and focuses on the essential nature of storytelling set in a kind of writers’ room […]

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