DV8 Physical Theatre’s artistic director Lloyd Newson interviewed more than 50 men on the topic of love and sex; one man called John became the inspiration for a new verbatim dance theatre piece, aptly titled JOHN.
The story is a frank and brutal one. John’s life is ridden with drugs, crime and alcohol abuse yet we can’t help but connect with this man who is constantly battling for a better life. Played by dancer Hannes Langolf, John does not demand any pity from his audience but instead accepts responsibility, making him appear all the more vulnerable and alone. He is presented simply and truthfully; we never forget that the man experiencing all these horrors is in fact real, and we are reminded of this again when we hear John’s own voice at the end.
As John begins to question his sexuality, we are taken on an unexpected detour to a gay sauna. Hence follows an examination of the relationship between love and sex, and whether the two are intertwined at all or are completely separate concepts. It is here in the gay sauna that the audience can hear opinions other than John’s, resulting in a broad overview of attitudes to unprotected sex, promiscuity and the taboo subject of HIV. DV8 should be admired for tackling such issues that still unfortunately have a stigma surrounding them, but whilst brave and powerful in its own right, the gay sauna interlude does somehow distract from John’s beautiful and shocking story that the audience were desperate to hear more of.
JOHN has a stunning hold over its audience, integrating seamless physical theatre choreography with poignant and starkly honest words. The movement and dialogue complement each other endlessly, without one ever becoming more or less important than the other. As John’s heroin addiction worsens, his life plummets with his legs physically unable to keep him stood up straight. In contrast, the bureaucratic justice system represented by judges, lawyers and a court psychiatrist shuffle about the stage, enclosing John like chess pieces, forcing him to accept the punishment for a crime he doesn’t remember committing.
The simple revolving set designed by Anna Fleischle is genius, allowing rooms and settings to quickly adapt and evolve. The actors become dummies in disturbing freeze frames depicting John’s horrific upbringing with his physically and sexually abusive father and alcoholic mother. We can understand when John admits that he was “pleased” to be taken into care.
It is John’s optimistic closing comments – hoping for a new relationship that would bring meaning to his current feeling of emptiness – that resound most clearly. Above everything, he is a man searching for acceptance and redemption; the overwhelming impact and feeling of empathy is certainly long-lasting amongst the audience members. This compelling production is screened in cinemas on 9 December, allowing audiences nationwide to experience this same unforgettable impact. Don’t miss it!
JOHN is playing at the National Theatre until 13 January 2015. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.