by Annie Baker
Directed by James Macdonald
Reviewer: Tom Baker
Annie Baker is a realist playwright. Her plays typically call for sets to be dressed to resemble mundane small-town American settings: the alley behind a chain coffee shop, a cinema screen between showings, a community centre. Her characters speak not in declarative, confident statements or poetic iambic pentameter but halting, elliptical fragments, taking a circuitous route to what they want to say. Thematically, her six plays have been rooted in the material world of bodies, relationships, and the disappointments of adult life. John is different. John is a ghost story.
Jenny (Anneika Rose) and Elias (Tom Mothersdale) are a young couple whose relationship is at death’s door. He is helplessly neurotic and self-centered with it, an aspiring drummer whose dreams have been set aside in favour of a more stable career in computer programming. She writes questions for quiz shows and, whilst initially appearing more open and gregarious, her attempts to maintain their crumbling union more often have the opposite effect. We meet the bickering pair on a make-or-break holiday, the week after Thanksgiving, to Gettysburg; when he was a child, Elias was obsessed by the American Civil War, much to the chagrin of his hippy-dippy parents.
The play takes place in the bed-and-breakfast the couple stay at in the town, run by the friendly, somewhat out-of-sorts Mertis (Marylouise Burke, the only actual American in the cast). Elias initially dismisses the older woman — with her fad diet, unfashionable sincerity and home festooned with various “tchotchkes” and creepy dolls — while Jenny finds somebody she can confide in, bailing on many of the couple’s touristy plans in town to share a bottle of wine with Mertis and her blind best friend Genevieve (June Watson, a marvel).
As with Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick, also staged in the National’s smaller Dorfrman theatre last year, a not-insignificant portion of John’s three hour, twenty minute runtime features no dialogue. There is ample space given to characters moving quietly through the B&B’s open-plan living room/communal kitchen, whether it’s a cramp-afflicted Jenny sneaking down in the middle of the night or Mertis preparing the breakfast things. There are the extended pauses that come as the recently acquainted cast around for topics of conversation, or as lovers quarrel, or when someone on the verge of epiphany takes a moment to adequately collect their thoughts before verbalising them.
Not that John is a Beckettian existential nightmare of stilted, gnomic statements; nor does its halting rhythm share the purposefully mannered quality of Sarah Kane’s work, which director James Macdonald has a great deal experience with (he also previously oversaw a production of Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation at the Royal Court). The characters talk as real people do, interrupting one other and trailing off and beating around the bush instead of clearly stating how they feel. Which is also not to suggest that the play is painful to watch, the staged equivalent of “cringe comedy”. Elias and Jenny are of the intellectual class who wield a voluminous vocabulary when it comes to externalising their emotional and mental states; it’s just that the other person doesn’t always want to hear it. Mertis and Genevieve, meanwhile, are as prone to quasi-spiritual soliloquies as to non-sequiturs.
Baker’s gift for naturalistic dialogue means even the more difficult moments in John are completely captivating, and the cast uniformly deliver their lines as adeptly as they do the furrowed brows, quizzical looks, telling body language and other non-verbal elements of their performances. Burke especially is superb, brilliantly understated, at once challenging Elias’s (and our own) patronising dismissal of her homely eccentricities and hinting at an inner life far deeper, and far stranger, than is assumed on first meeting her.
Then there’s the room where all this highly watchable dilly-dallying happens. The set design by Chloe Lamford and the team at the National fulfills its purpose as both an accurate recreation of a chintzy, thoroughly un-hip B&B and an eerie liminal space. Scene transitions are handled not with the traditional blackouts, but with Mertis wandering to the grandfather clock in the centre of the stage and winding the hour hands forward, the lights shifting accordingly like a time-lapse video. Time moves in mysterious ways here. Emotionally eloquent Brooklynites Jenny and Elias, with their pinging smartphones and ironic jokes, are obviously out of place in these surroundings, but when they step over the threshold they also appear to be stepping outside of time. Then there are all the dolls, their dead eyes watching over the action, either cosy or creepy depending on your point of view.
A sense of the supernatural at play in John is not limited to Jenny’s requesting a scary story from the begrudging Elias on their first night, either, or Mertis reluctantly sharing the detail that the building served as a field hospital during the Civil War, amputated limbs tossed out the windows in piles reaching ten feet. In the dark, strange things happen. A player piano bursts into life in the middle of the night, and is just as suddenly silenced. Lights burn out, only to be resurrected just as quickly and without intervention. Things move around without anyone appearing to touch them. In one of the most memorable moments, Watson’s character steps out of the scene entirely to deliver a monologue about a mental break after leaving her husband, veering between humour and tragedy not unlike the speech that closes the second act of Pinter’s The Caretaker.
John is a ghost story and, as with many of the best of the genre, it is often unutterably sad. Melancholy has underscored much of Baker’s earlier work, touching as they did on such topics as mental illness and suicide, but this is her most emotionally intense. The slow dissolution of the young couple’s relationship is so sharply perceptive as to be difficult to watch, as returning to one’s own memories of such scenes can still put a weight in the stomach. Whether Jenny and Elias should be together is up for debate — as with Amy Herzog’s Belleville, currently playing at the Donmar, the actors sell the couple’s intimacy as convincingly as their antagonism — but watching them push each other away completely cannot help but be tragic.
The play is never morose, however, and under Macdonald’s direction John is as alive for the comedic potential in the random collisions of human interaction as it is tragic. The characters of Genevieve and Mertis introduce a vein of spirituality, too, which makes for a story that transcends the materiality of relationship drama. As was the case with The Flick, you rarely feel the piece’s marathon length, each of the two intervals coming as a surprise. The National’s staging fully ensconces you in the world of Elias, Jenny, Mertis and Genevieve and, even when the going gets tough, as the curtains are drawn for a final time on the kitsch-filled bed-and-breakfast, you’ll find yourself yearning for a later check-out.
Runs until: March 3rd 2018 at National Theatre