DV8 Physical Theatre have been acclaimed as one of the most innovative theatre companies of the modern age. Their unique style of physical theatre has allowed them to develop a unique visual aesthetic that’s accessible to a wide variety of audiences. They are known for bringing bold and brave stories to audiences that confront issues in our world today. Their new show, John, is one that does exactly this, as I would find out after settling down into the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre.
John is a piece of verbatim theatre, a form of political theatre where scripts are fashioned out of interviews with real people regarding a certain topic. For this production, DV8 interviewed over fifty men and asked them about their experiences of sex and sexuality. Out of those who were interviewed, one man stood out – John. The production is mainly John recounting his story, which begins with him at his home on a rough council estate where he’s forced to stand back and watch as his father abuses his brother and rapes a babysitter, while his mother steals school uniforms and flogs them off at half price to make ends meet. After knocking around with several girls, two of which he gets pregnant, John gets hooked on drugs and ends up committing arson with intent to kill, resulting in him being thrown in prison. Upon his release, he realises that he has been living a lie, and is in fact gay – and so goes into the dark underworld of meeting men in saunas and alleys for sex. John tells us that he’s contracted HIV – and we see him squirming around his bed telling us that he’s desperately ready to find a long-lasting companion in a world that seems to have given up on him.
There’s a lot going on in John; there’s an almost constantly revolving set that the company of actors fluidly navigate throughout the entire show. They switch characters effortlessly, changing their physicality completely to present to us a wide range of different voices and opinions that accompany those of central character John (Hannes Langolf). DV8’s signature physical sequences are woven into the production, too, and performers occasionally break into bursts of well-choreographed movement to give reinforce the soul of the piece, as well as constantly engage the audience.
There are moments, however, that are quite shocking, to say the least. Some of the excerpts of interviews are unforgivingly blunt – particularly those attitudes towards the contraction of HIV. Everything gradually hurtles towards chaos, taking the audience on a journey through that dark underworld I mentioned earlier. There’s a somewhat sinister tone and atmosphere, mainly created by changes in sound and lighting, along with the uncomplicated portrayals of those individuals captivated by a hunger for what they need, and who are prepared to go to extremes to get it. I also wasn’t expecting men to begin walking around completely naked on stage, but I guess this helped to reinforce DV8’s overall attitude towards approaching issues with confidence and clarity. This visual aspect, combined with the scenography’s other aspects, helped to represent a chaotic world where barriers between intimacy and consent are blurred and subsequently broken down – which is something that’s occurring far too frequently in our modern world.
While at times there seems to be a bit of clunky exposition – as in, we’re thrown into John’s experiences of homosexuality and other individuals’ stories quite suddenly – John is a powerful and provocative piece of theatre. Overall, it lays the cards on the table and really stops to make you think.
John is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 24 October. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website. Photo by West Yorkshire Playhouse website.