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Theatre review: John

Annie Baker's new play is a masterpiece, says our critic

Dorfman

    Tom Mothersdale and Anneika Rose in John
    Tom Mothersdale and Anneika Rose in John (Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)

    Very occasionally, a new playwright comes along who shifts the general understanding of what a play can be. Annie Baker is one such. For much of her 2014 Pulitzer-winning work The Flick, the employees of a Massachusetts independent cinema are allowed to exist outside any plot or authorial purpose. They turn up. They sweep the floor. The dialogue is often film-fan chat and uncompromisingly nerdish. And then, slowly, over the course of three hours or more, a story unfolds and takes hold.

    Baker’s latest does that again. It is also deeply spooky and, without being religious, highly spiritual in its way. The down-to-earth setting is a Gettysburg b&b run by the slow-moving and elderly Mertis (the wonderful American actor Marylouise Burke) — Kitty to her friends. Into this kitsch setting, festooned with American Civil War curios and Kitty’s doll collection (design Chloe Mumford), arrives Jenny (Anneika Rose) and Elias (Tom Mothersdale). The couple have been together for three years and, it emerges, are attempting to repair a fractured relationship. Jenny had an affair. But the more we see of the unsympathetic and neurotic Elias, the more we see why.

    Baker’s play works on several levels, all of them engrossing. James Macdonald’s production devotes a similar amount of stage time to what might be called observational drama as does The Flick. That is to say people do stuff here for seemingly no overt dramatic reason — switching on lights, reading books or just snuggling down on the common room sofa. Done right — as it is here — it generates tension. But it also delivers a good deal of comedy rooted in the quirks of human behaviour when the human in question is in solitude.

    No less closely observed is the relationship between Elias and Jenny. One of their early exchanges might seem innocuous. They have been disagreeing. Jenny says “I don’t know why that turned into a fight,” and Elias says, “That wasn’t a fight.”

    Now, without claiming preternatural powers of insight, those who are alive to the cultural differences that can appear in a relationship between a Jew and a gentile might recognise a thing here. And that thing is that the Jew in a relationship may think he or she is talking, while the gentile in the relationship may think that the Jew is yelling. And so it proves here. The relationship between Elias and Jenny blossoms into a study of the cultural texture that become yawning chasms when everything else in a gentile/Jewish relationship isn’t working well.

    As the patient Jenny, Rose superbly inhabits if not the better half of this couple, then the better-adjusted half. Meanwhile, Mothersdale terrifically suggests the coiled self-obsession of someone with a victim complex. Baker — the daughter of a Catholic father and Jewish mother — expertly subverts these characteristics as the play unfolds. It would be a spoiler of criminal proportions to say how.

    Level three (and there may be more) of John might be described as a mystery play. Counterintuitively Mertis — aka Kitty — becomes more mysterious the better we get to know her. She moves the play forward in time by rotating the hands on her grandfather clock. This also shifts Peter Mumford’s uncannily convincing lighting design to represent the passing of a day. They are visually beautiful transitions. But within the narrative this sweet old lady is also revealed to have a writer’s talent and a worldly wisdom. Her friendship with her blind friend Genevieve (June Watson) is not that of two old biddies, as we might assume, but rather the comradeship of fearlessly inquisitive minds and soulmates who have a quasi-supernatural understanding of the world. The beneficiaries are Jenny, Elias and, very possibly, us.

    Like the hands on Kitty’s grandfather clock, the three hours and twenty minutes of this masterpiece whizz by.

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