John is a show about many things. It’s about domestic abuse, drug use and development of sexuality. The question is whether the combination of these widely different issues work within one storyline.
The plot is narrated by the movement devised by the company, DV8. The physicality cannot be faulted. Their style remains theatrical, yet relies on motifs to power the story forward. You can see the cast repeating certain moves throughout the show in sequence, including an extremely clever lean on an angle, strikingly similar to Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal video. To me, I see these motifs as a metaphor as to how John’s pain is ever longing.
The simplicity of the show visually is emphasized by Anna Fleischle’s set design. It is designed as a cross shape, dividing the stage into four sections and a narrow corridor separating each one, with a revolve helping scene transitions. Just like the movement from DV8, the scene transitions also flow extremely well and almost add a cinematic feel to the piece, especially in the first minutes where we witness John’s childhood being summarised quickly.
But whilst the movement and the scene transitions make the piece feel very exciting to watch, the storyline completely lacks this fluidity and instead feels confusing. Whilst I appreciate watching a life story of someone, when you have him going through completely different periods of his life such as drug abuse, to him staying at a gay sauna, so quickly, it makes it very tricky for the audience to catch up on what has just happened. Going into the auditorium, I did not know what to expect, with the description on the National Theatre’s website only saying:
‘John’s desire for a new life leads him to a place unknown by most.’
Whilst I expected the storyline to mainly focus on the domestic and family issues of John’s life, I certainly didn’t expect the overuse of foul language. Sometimes in theatre, it is much more effective and poignant to say something without swearing. But especially with the later scenes in the piece where we see John suffering from HIV, due to the amount of graphic language, it loses all emotion that it could have been capable of, leading me to feel very distanced and having no emotional connection for John towards the climax.
There is a lot to appreciate in DV8’s John, from the fluidity of movement from each member of the cast, particularly Hannes Langolf’s enticing performance as the title character, as well as Fleischle’s set design, allowing the spotlight to be purely on the physicality. However, due to the fast-paced storyline and overwhelming amount of swearing, I left the National feeling confused and cold about what I had just seen. As a piece of theatre, it doesn’t work. As a piece of PHYSICAL theatre, it works.
Reviewed by Jack Grey
JOHN is playing at the National Theatre until 13 January 2015