Written for The Wonderful World of Dance
18th December 2014, National Theatre
“Wanting to feel something, anything, just to feel alive and needed. Sex. Love. Intimacy.”
The story of JOHN is captured by Lloyd Newson with integrity, carefully piecing together his interview into a piece of sincere verbatim, physical theatre with DV8’s talented cast of 9. They lead us through John’s unsettled childhood where all he has known is death and heartache, spiralling into a life of drugs and crime.
Hannes Langolf plays John with honesty and moves laced with lucidity, oozing such physical embodiment with the words that he speaks – a remarkable performance. His legs become jelly as his broken home life catches up with him. No one is there to hold him up.
After an encounter with arson and narcotics, leading to a lengthy jail sentence he yearns to reform to ‘normality’ – whatever that may mean. When moving into a probation hostel with a group of men he explores his sexuality, discovering that he is in fact homosexual and spends time in and out of a busy, gay sauna.
There are two distinct sections to this work, pre and post prison. This seems to be disjointed with no clear link, but then that is what makes this compelling, putting together missing clues and having to think, instead of being pushed through a cliché storyline with your hand held at every moment. Life isn’t linear so this true tale need not be either.
Text is embedded into the choreography seamlessly, a feat that is often done poorly with disconnection from one from another. Anna Felischle’s continuously revolving set, which becomes a maze of different rooms and settings adds to this whirlpool of darkness. The performers shuffle in, out and around this liquid, rotating landscape and short bursts of action emerge, involving beautiful contact work.
Some people have commented on JOHN being too long but I thought that it gave enough space to take in often hard to digest information. If you can sit through a feature length film of pure drivel I’m sure that you can dedicate 75 minutes to this gut-wrenching series of events.
The rhythm of the work stays steady, communicating John’s journey in a very unglorified way, keeping the piece stripped down to its naked truth. A refreshing relief after constantly feeling desensitised to glossy storylines in Hollywood blockbusters and cringey soap operas that attempt to throw dramatic experiences in our faces but fail to hold onto the reality of it all.
Lloyd Newson directs an eye-opening realisation of social issues and the support systems, or lack of support that is in place for people like John.
How can you help someone who has had such a disastrous start to life, exposed to domestic and sexual abuse, alcoholism and surrounded by suicide from family members? How can you not expect them to be tempted into any way that may offer a sense of escape?
It is easy for me to comment on this from my point of privilege but this is something that needs to change. This is a story that needs to be told everywhere, not just in such an accepting place as London, to an audience who I assume are educated on issues around drug abuse and even the stigmas that surround HIV/AIDS, which is encountered in the second section of the work.
Distracting us from John’s early life is a snapshot of what it is like to be a gay man is highlighted. Constantly being judged skin deep. The difference of how this piece would be received in a local theatre would certainly be a contrast to how it has been embraced at the National Theatre.
DV8 Physical Theatre gave me what I feel I have missed out on in theatre this year – performance art that comments on life and society. Domestic abuse, mental health, drug abuse and HIV/AIDS, to name a few of the areas that JOHN touches base with, should not simply be swept under the rug.
We are also in such a constant world of change, love and sex has become so fluid with each other and amidst a ‘Now generation’ when can anything palpable be felt?
John’s actual voice is heard with Langolf mouthing his wanting to find someone to come home to. The set turns once more and we are left in darkness, reeling from his distressing state of affairs.
You can see JOHN at the National Theatre until 13 January 2015.