Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: JOHN, National Theatre

Review: JOHN, National Theatre

Here’s a funny thing about theatre. Audiences have all the control. Whatever artists might choose to make, audiences choose what to see. You can’t force an person into a particular show. You have to attract them. It’s about persuasion, enticement, seduction. Or, to give it is usual (fucking) name: marketing.

What do audiences – and I absolutely don’t mean critics – chose to go and see? Things they expect to enjoy. How do they make that decision? Based on what they know. Of a show and of themselves. They lean towards a company they trust, or a theatre they frequent, or an actor they love, or a form they adore, or a subject they’re interested in.

When do you ever go to the theatre to be totally surprised? When do you ever take a punt – like a real punt – on a show you know nothing about? (Edinburgh, excepted.)

Theatre beats itself up about preaching to the converted: pedalling happy-clappy liberalism to happy-clappy liberals. But the trouble is only the converted turn up. Racists won’t go and see The Scottsboro Boys. Tories won’t go and see Beyond Caring. Bullingdon Clubbers only go and see Posh to push against it. Audiences chose what they see. If they don’t like the sound of a show, there’s no reaching them. Who’ll go and see 2071, Katie Mitchell’s latest piece about climate change? People that already care about climate change. Who’ll go and see a piece about gay saunas? People that care about gay saunas.

That’s where DV8 and JOHN comes in.

JOHN is on in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre, an 890-seat auditorium. It is advertised as follows: “This powerful new verbatim work by DV8 Physical Theatre follows the extraordinary life story of one man. John. After years of crime, drug use and struggling to survive, John’s desire for a new life leads him to a place unknown by most.”

Sure enough, that’s how it starts: John talking us through his horrendous, abusive childhood, through his directionless stumble through life, through heroin and homelessness and hostel after hostel, shoplifting to survive and always slipping the net. On a revolving stage, John (Hannes Langolf) keeps moving – or moving on – from place to place, door to door. He has to keep moving, because he can’t find a foothold on life. Everyone he meets is like him, beset by problems: addicts, prostitutes, “a community of shoplifters.” They drag each other down. Drugs to depression to crime to jail to depression to drugs. John lives in a tailspin.

Eventually, in prison, he sorts himself out. Gets clean. Gets fit. Gets out. On release, he avoids relapse and seeks respite. “That revolving door,” he says, “It ain’t for me.”

As Langolf keeps walking, the revolve delivers a roomful of naked men. You see it coming. It’s jarring; completely unexpected and, for a second, quite puzzling. The men dress and undress. Two shimmy through the crowd, explaining how they came to set up a gay sauna and detailing the principles behind their business. Then, in steps John, and what looked like a study of a person becomes a study of a place.

JOHN isn’t just about one man. Its second half is more typical of verbatim theatre: a series of staged interviews around a subject, all set to DV8’s expressive, entrancing choreography. We meet owners, receptionists, customers. We hear about the ins and outs, the sex and the shit left behind, the power play and the gloryholes. One man – a teacher – explains his relationship with Grinder and his distaste for protection. Another talks through realising and accepting his sexuality through saunas. A businessman details the sauna’s role in his daily routine. 10,000 people pass through the space every month.

You get a real sense of the sauna as a species of space, and a notion as to why men might go there, for all their different reasons. All of the interviewees are looking for something: be it sex, anonymity or conversation, for somewhere to spend the night, to kill time, to prove oneself.

How many of the Lyttelton audience have been to a gay sauna, I wonder? How many would have paid to watch a show about one? How does theatre coax an audience out of its comfort zone?

The form is just beautiful. DV8 have smuggled one show in under the guise of another, just as gay saunas put up a front to the outside world. The show stumbles into a sauna just as John does and, like John, it struggles to outwardly admit it’s true nature. This is closeted theatre.

And that begs big, big questions. Why will a National Theatre audience happily watch poverty porn, a story of drugs and destitution, but not queer theatre? There’s a fascinating juxtaposition here too: John is one man and his life is described as extraordinary; yet 10,000 people pass through this particular sauna every month. Why is one worth putting onstage and the other not? And why, given how regularly we see men like John onstage, does nothing really get done to help? Might that be why he – and others – seek out the sauna?

More and more, you see the sauna as a safe, permissive space, where men are allowed to express themselves as they so chose; a recluse from a punitive, normative mainstream that’s all to happy to look the other way and pretend such spaces don’t exist, let alone have cause to exist.

Only there they are onstage at the National Theatre of all places, smuggled in undercover and placed in front of an unsuspecting audience. That’s an artist taking control and it’s an electric thing to encounter.

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