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Review - Annie Baker's John at the National Theatre, Dorfman

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Theatrical marmite doesn't come more pungently or demandingly flavoured than this: the UK premiere of Annie Baker's latest is the strangest new play in many a long day (and even longer night). Across some three hours twenty minutes that we spend in a possibly haunted, definitely decaying Pennsylvania guest house near the historic site of Gettysburg, we meet just four people: the landlady Mertis (the brilliantly eccentric American actress Marylouise Burke, making her British debut); her blind friend Genevieve (the striking June Watson); and a young couple who come to rent a room, Elias and Jenny (Tom Motherdale and Anneika Rose), for a weekend exploring Civil War battleground sites.

But there's a rather uncivil war being staged closer to home. Not a lot happens; or maybe everything happens, as the fractious guest couple suffer a cold night in the drastically under-heated room they've been given. But it turns into an even colder night of the soul, as their relationship unravels and eventually implodes. She has her period come on; he bristles and takes easy offence at every interaction between them. She's besieged with constantly arriving text messages. The piano plays unbidden and the lights on the Christmas tree flicker and fuse, then come back on. It's the (frequent) gaps between what is said and unsaid that speak loudest.

For some, there'll be a mesmerising repetitiveness to this; as with Baker's The Flick, seen at this same theatre in 2016 and which won last year's Critics Circle Theatre Award for Best Play, we're invited to watch life unfolding at its own pace. But this play feels like it is aiming for something both bigger and loaded with more metaphorical weight. Hamilton is currently offering us one racy, pacy, musical view of one chapter of American history; this massively weird domestic drama is played out in a location weighted with its own history, but dances to a very different tune. 

It's about storytelling - the stories we tell ourselves and the lies we tell each other - and the solace and dangers of each. James Macdonald, a master of the experimental plays of Caryl Churchill, is the perfect director to honour the play's agonisingly slow rhythms; he also has an ideal cast to tease them out. You can only surrender to it and go with the flow. But the rewards are, this time, few. 

John is in the Dorfman at the National Theatre util 3rd March.

Photos courtesy Stephen Cummiskey

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