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by Lloyd Newson
with DV8 Physical Theatre
directed by Lloyd Newson
National Theatre

Lloyd Newson’s raw John explores sex, intimacy and the pain of a life ravaged by abuse and abandonment. Like Can We Talk About This? and To Be Straight With You, previous works from DV8 which focus respectively on attitudes towards Islam and homophobia, JOHN is a verbatim piece that uses quotes from real-life research subjects in lieu of written lines. Unlike the works before it, however, John centres on a single voice: that of John, a formerly homeless and now-incarcerated man whose bleak story teems with tragedy.


The production layers excerpts of Newson’s interviews with John, recited by the performers, over sketches in which they dance his narrative, adding in the odd song for an extra stratum of emotion, be it sorrow, suspense or poignancy. Hannes Langolf is at the helm of the show as John’s mouthpiece, walking us through the protagonist’s impoverished upbringing and his subsequent descent into addiction, crime and incarceration. Langolf is splendidly expressive and expertly imbues John’s terse, matter- of-fact manner with an undercurrent of tenderness so that his pithy sentences bristle with an edge of desperation. His pitch-perfect delivery is confirmed when a recording of the real John filters in during the final moments of the performance.


The gut-wrenching details of John’s social dispossession are matched with equally visceral choreography. He recounts the heroin addiction that prompted his brother to shake his newborn to death with staggering, disjointed shifts of weight and frequent collapses into the ground; he shakes and spasms as he describes his good friend’s surrender to AIDS, repeatedly folding and unfolding his limbs in an attempt to contain himself. Meanwhile, bureaucratic figures trundle around while background performers act out snippets of the horrors plaguing John’s childhood: his father beating his brother and raping the babysitter, his alcoholic mother shoplifting clothes and later dropping dead from an overdose. It’s a powerful and riveting approach that cannily demands we acknowledge the type of life society usually goes out of its way to ignore.


Unfortunately it’s only the first half of the show that captivates this way; the second half does an abrupt about-face, moving away from the singular focus on John to busy itself with a meditation on gay sauna culture and the men who partake in it. Having admitted that he regularly seeks refuge in gay saunas as a way to indulge in non-committal intimacy, John ostensibly anchors this segment, but Newson introduces a spate of new voices here, and the protagonist’s is quickly lost in the crowd. It’s a startling shift and an ultimately dissatisfying one: the setting is bold and rife with interesting elements to explore – liminal spaces, anonymity, wilful ignorance – but the production overextends itself and ends up dancing around all of these themes without ever clenching any of them. Moreover, it lapses into an overly moralistic tone, harping on about personal responsibility in a manner completely at odds with the plea for compassion underscoring the show’s first half.


Still, JOHN contains several components that remain compelling throughout – Anna Fleischle’s masterful revolving set, for one, which morphs into different sites seamlessly, its compartments standing in first as bedrooms, then sickbays, prison cells and steam rooms. A recurring sense of black humour also proves forceful: occasional moments of levity, like John’s arch admission that his son is mixed race despite both parents being white, provide a much-needed respite from his mostly wretched circumstances.


Sara Veale


photos | ©Stavros Petropoulos

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