Dorfman, National Theatre – until 3 March
The National Theatre created a minor sensation when it took Annie Baker’s The Flick into the Dorfman last year, with half the audience raving about real-time theatre and the other complaining they couldn’t see.
Fortunately, Baker’s follow-up John is just as captivating, with fewer sightline problems. Lasting three hours 20 minutes, it keeps the audience gripped with apparent lack of effort and leaves them feeling they have seen something special, from a playwright who is changing expectations of theatre.
John is set in a Gettysburg B&B run by Mertis, who welcomes a young, backpacking couple, Elias and Jenny, from Brooklyn, visiting the battlefield sights. The action plays out at a spectacularly leisurely pace, the like of which few writers would have the confidence to contemplate staging.
The awkwardness of B&B arrival chit-chat gives way to a scene which takes place entirely off-stage, fragments of dialogue drifting down the stairs as Mertis shows the couple their room.
At this early point, the set by Chloe Lamford is enough to keep the audience transfixed, a hyper-real re-creation of a Pennsylvania interior, with soft furnishings, doll collection and a Paris-themed breakfast room section. However, it soon becomes apparent that the pacing is absolutely crucial to a play in which people are gradually revealed to not be what they seem, and the boundaries of reality itself are tested.
Baker’s genius is to introduce subjects and situations that are challenging, topical, and disturbing through a setting that, on the surface, seems the essence of unremarkable.
On first appearance, the elderly B&B owner Mertis seems a type – conventional, eccentric, convinced of her own opinions. However, the audience, as well as Elias and Jenny are led to feel abashed at making such assumptions based on appearance. The complexity of her character is teased out over the time it really takes to have a conversation with Jenny, confined to the B&B with period pain while her boyfriend tours Civil War sites in her absence.
Another remarkable aspect of John is the way Baker writes about topics and and characters rarely seen on stage. Period pain is one such subject, not so much taboo as never considered, but the play is also remarkable in being led by two women in their 70s – Mertis and her friend Genevieve, who is also blind. This quietly revolutionary combination is presented with complete lack of fanfare. Instead, Baker demonstrates why different voices are essential in theatre by telling stories we hadn’t even noticed were missing. If the pacing of the play is crucial to its success, it can only be communicated through completely committed performances which it receives, from Anneika Rose as Jenny, Tom Mothersdale as Elias, Marylouise Burke, wonderfully subtle as Mertis, and June Watson who plays Genevieve like an visitor from another dimension.
The pacing and setting, expertly delivered by director James Macdonald, give heightened credibility to every aspect of the story, from the banal (sneaking a look at a loved one’s phone) to the supernatural. It is a measure of the places Baker is able to go that, at one point, the play seems poised to end with a demon-summoning reading from HP Lovecraft. Not only is the ambition and scope of John enormous but its success is complete. From the collective names for groups of birds to the sinister other-life of dolls, from the racial boundaries between a Jewish-Indian couple to the cultural impact of history, John has it covered. And the title, the epitome of the ordinary, turns out to be quite the opposite. Baker’s play is essential to understanding the excitement new writing can generate.