John @ National Theatre: Something May Come of Nothing

It is an entirely unoriginal and yet entirely worthwhile thing to comment on and gush about the way Annie Baker crafts silences. I think it’s largely because they never feel like silences. She arranges the people in her plays in such a way that when they lapse into silence it doesn’t for a second feel artificial. It doesn’t feel manipulated to control the tension – though it does. It feels perfectly normal, because it excavates the twenty layers of complicated human sinew that a lesser playwright might need an hour-long monologue followed by a screaming match to articulate.

It never feels empty. There’s a thing Tony Kushner said about The Iceman Cometh; he spoke of the end of that play being “the nothing that gives birth to something.” That’s what Baker seems to do. Each moment of nothing gives birth to something – even if that something is itself nothing.

Fuck.

*

So there’s a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg sometime after Thanksgiving with a lot of strange furniture and interesting wallpaper and a lot of lamps and a lot of dolls. It’s strangely gorgeous, and therefore it’s obviously a Chloe Lamford set. Into it walk a couple, Elias and Jenny. They seem perfectly normal. Which is always a giveaway. Maybe they’re just comparatively normal in the middle of a scene that looks somehow like it’s permanently Christmas.

The shelves at the back of the stage are rammed with dolls. The watch glassy-eyed over the event of the play. These are old-school dolls, one’s that look like they’ve had many owners, however cared for they are now. These dolls – like the dead bodies of the soldiers in the ground – can only be silent. But in Baker’s hands, silence carries enormous weight.

Nothing particularly happens in John, but then why should it. You just watch Jenny and Elias, and the bed and breakfast owner Mertis over a few days, and watch as something in that room gets under their skin and turns them inside out. Jenny and Elias, that is. Mertis could be completely nuts, and everything that comes out of her mouth could be a lie, or she could be absolutely completely sincere, in which case she’s just a little bit kooky. Why does she draw a curtain before and after each act? Why does she move the hands on the clock? Will none of this happen without her?

OH and there’s that spookyspookyspooky piano that plays very loudly all by itself. It doesn’t even feel like it represents anything but REALLY CREEPY SHIT. It’s just there to be strange, without explanation. John refuses to spell anything out to you; it articulates everything beautifully, and then explains not a goddamn bit of it,

You know that thing where actors look like they’re not even acting? And everyone always uses that phrase and it’s infuriating but there’s not really an alternative? That’s what it’s like watching Mary-Louise Burke onstage. I’m completely convinced that’s what she’s like as a person, and I’m pretty sure actually meeting her would not disabuse me of that notion. She just is Mertis. By which I suppose I mean she has a complete and total understanding of just how Baker constructs her characters, and the rhythms of her writing, and then how to play that, instead of just internalising it. Which means you can doubt her completely, she can carry the weight of what I think is the central question of the play, who exactly is Mertis? She seems to have the tone of a Fairy Godmother, but the threat of a Machiavelli, and the aimlessness of Amberlynn Weggers.

*

My favourite thing about John is the way it spends the first act, a good hour-and-a-bit, meticulously creating a completely (well, almost) naturalistic world, and then spends the next couple of hours systematically destroying that naturalism. My very favourite moment is when Genevieve emerges from behind the curtain, mid-interval, to explain at length exactly how she went insane. It’s so out of step, a part of the play that just juts out of this otherwise beautifully constructed piece. It’s GREAT.

June Watson is pretty fucking excellent, isn’t she? It’s a strange part; in such a naturalistic world, she’s GRAND. She’s BIG. It’s just the bed and breakfasts that got small. There’s a sense of faded glamour, and history to Genevieve, royalty or regality or something. But Watson doesn’t force the character to make it fit with the naturalistic rhythm of the rest of the piece, Genevieve sits slightly apart from the rest of the play, somewhere between the front of the stage and the audience. She’s performing for us, she knows we’re there, probably because she can’t see us.

*

This is the first Baker play I’ve actually seen, but whenever I’ve read one of her plays, I’m always struck by the quiet heaviness of it; the way that when you turn the last page and you know that there’s a weight to it, that somehow you’ve got somewhere, without any real idea how it happened. Like in life, when you might find yourself in an argument without any real sense of how it started. In John, we watch a relationship disintegrate (or at least the latter stages of it,) but it sort of happens without you realising it, by accident almost. When the argument gets loud, when they start to scream it doesn’t feel like a jolt, or a shock, it’s just an unsettling feeling that this was happening all along.

The dolls stare back at us, the audience. They’ve been watching it all, too, even when the curtain’s drawn. They’ve had the chance to see far more that we have. I wonder if they knew it was happening?

 

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

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