Theatre Review: John, National Theatre ‘Breathtakingly Beautiful in its Mysteriousness’

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About midway through this magical and mysterious new play from Annie Baker, one of the characters, Genevieve, is talking to her sister, Mertis, and a guest at Mertis’s B&B, Jenny, about her nervous breakdown. For Genevieve, she started seeing hearing her ex-husband’s voice and sensing his malevolent influence in family, friends… Even her doctors. She sensed him as a dangerous spirit, poisoning and tormenting her through them. The diagnosis was psychosis. “But here’s the thing about being crazy,” Genevieve says, “Some of what you believe may actually be true.”

And it is this sentiment that is the thread in this utterly beguiling, haunting and mesmerising John. Many adjectives there, I know, but I was completely swept up into this play’s curious little world. In this rich, multi-layered, intricate writing, Annie Baker weaves in mysteries, half-truths and ponderings on life and the universe. They may be true, they may not be true. But here’s the thing – who are we to say or judge what is real and what is not?

The framework for the play is relatively simple – a deeply unhappy couple, Elias (Tom Mothersdale) and Jenny (Anneika Rose), take a detour on their way back to New York after Thanksgiving to visit the Civil War battlefields in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

They check in to Mertis’s (Marylouise Burke) B&B, where she also lives with her husband, George. But Mertis is an eccentric, if affectionate, older woman who seems to live in a world of her own, emphasised by her extraordinary front room filled to the brim with inanimate objects and twee bric-a-brac – angels sharing shelf-space with dozens of dolls, Abraham Lincoln perched alongside a mini-Wurlitzer jukebox, and a decorated Christmas tree glistens in the corner, its fairy lights fusing as much as twinkling.

It’s an eerie place, but strangely homely. Mertis feels her dolls and angels give body to her sense of people watching over her. A metaphysical and spiritual security blanket. And that comfort, that odd sensation that this place lies between our world and the next, has a confessional effect on Jenny and Elias who find themselves opening up to Mertis and her sister, Genevieve, (June Watson), about their feelings, their experiences, and the way they see the world. And, by doing so, they may well find resolution on their future as a couple.

Direction comes from James Macdonald, who worked wonders with both The Father and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and his masterful management of pace adds so much here. Mertis shuffles around at the pace of a snail. Nothing is hurried. Meandering conversations are not pushed through, rather time is given for each thought to hang in the air, like pearls of wisdom to consider and reflect upon. As if these thoughts are said then rise up into the universe. And the sense of magical realism is only heightened by Chloe Lamford’s rich and magnificent set design.

I’ve the usual quibblings about theatre audience reactions – a scene of quite intimidating emotional abuse was met with a wave of giggles – but not even that could pull me out from the spell of this play. (Indeed, it even crossed my mind that an interpretation of the play was that we were, in fact, witnessing a form of magic.) But if I had one concern, it would be the final minute or so.

For those looking for an explanation of life, you will not find it here. This is not a play of conclusions. This is not a play that wraps up loose ends or answers its own questions. After investing over three hours of their time, it is understandable that some audience members will be disappointed with this, especially as there are so many mysteries here – where is Mertis’s husband, George? Is he really in his bed ill, or is he fictional? Was the house really a hospital in the Civil War? Is that why the place feels haunted? And why doesn’t Mertis want any of her guests staying in one of the bedrooms? In fact, where are all the other guests?

As I left the theatre, my initial reaction was one of wonder tinged with a smidgeon of disappointment – especially as the final moments only confirmed one of the few threads that the audience would have already deduced. But, overnight, I found myself ruminating on Genevieve’s words of madness being founded in truth, and I realise that actually this play could not have ended any other way.

John provided me with one of the finest evenings I have spent in a theatre. I’m not saying you will necessarily feel the same. But if you are one for listening and people watching, and for wondering where we fit into the universe and the way of all things, buy a ticket, wear comfy trousers, take a caffeine-loaded drink and some giant buttons, and get comfortable in your seat. John is a play you have to immerse yourself into, but it is worth it. Adjust to the pace, revel in listening and watching, and enjoy.

National Theatre, London, to March 3, 2018.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Stephen Cummiskey

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