Culture

The power of ‘slow theatre’: a review of John at The National

BY Rachel Coombes | r_coombes   /  9 February 2018

There is something strangely absorbing about the quotidian human exchanges staged in all their mundanity. Annie Baker’s new play ‘John’ absorbs.

‘Slow radio’ and ‘slow TV’ are very much in fashion at the moment. They affect to immerse us into the banality of routine, of the everyday.

BBC Four’s comic hit Detectorists follows the inconspicuous lives of two members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club.

Last year the BBC made a broadcast of monks going about their daily business in a monastery, aping Philip Groning’s 2005 documentary film, ‘Into Great Silence’, an exploration of the repetitive rituals of a monastic community in the French Alps.
.
Annie Baker specialises in ‘slow theatre’. She is fascinated by the commonplace tension and anxiety in our lives, but avoids lulling the audience into a disinterested state of tranquillity.

Baker should be well-known to British audiences – her first play was the critically acclaimed drama ‘The Flick’.

‘John’ explores the self-conscious state of feeling alone – a sort of knowing boredom. This ethic extends through three-and-a-half hours (almost) which unfolds solely in a cramped Bed & Breakfast in Gettysburgh, Pennsylvania.

Mertis (Marylouise Burke) the B&B’s kindly, overenthusiastic owner, welcomes Jenny (Annieka Rose) and Elias (Tom Mothersdale), a young couple from Brooklyn for a short stay.

The casting is superb: Marylouise Burke gives a dazzling performance as the vulnerable but spirited Mertis. Gentle comic touches, including her response to hearing that Elias suffers from a phobia of birds (she promptly hides her small robin statue behind a clutter of other trinkets), lends her character a sense of poignancy.

The plot is pretty simple. Brooklyn hipster Elias has booked the trip with the intention of exploring the Gettysburg battlefields, while Jenny is more concerned with patching up a relationship in tatters (a goal put in jeopardy from the start by crippling period pain).

The battlefield is symbolically relocated to the domestic interior, with Elias perceiving Jenny’s innocent remarks as slights, or threats: “Please stop trapping me!”, he exclaims in Act 1.

The claustrophic interior of the relationship is exteriorized in the set – piled high with what Mertis amusingly refers to as her “matter”: porcelain cherubs, small model animals, and endless doll figurines.

“There’s so much miniature shit … are you into it?” Elias asks Jenny not long after they arrive.

The set is lavishly designed by Chloe Lamford, and its visual overstimulation is a powerful counterpoint to the sparseness and contained intricacy of the text.

Speaking to Interview magazine last year, Annie Baker admitted that she chose to become a playwright rather than a novelist because of the pressure on the prose-writer to find the “perfect words”.

“The whole imperfection of it [writing scripts] suddenly felt freeing to me”, she says.

And it is here that she excels: every faltering phrase and false start, every misunderstood comment and twitchy response is perfectly calculated. This keeps the audience in a state of constant apprehension, tangled up in the endlessly intricate dialogue. Good style makes for rich drama – deepening and refracting the simple action of the plot.

Mertis quotes Anglican priest, John Henry Newman: “Nunquam minus solus, quam cum solus” (‘never less alone than when alone’).

But the play also shows that solitude, boredom and mundanity contain the possibility of rich emotional landscapes that belie the narrow appearance of the quotidian.

John runs at the Dorfman Theatre (National Theatre) until 3 March. Limited tickets available here.