Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Theatre/Dance review: JOHN

After 2012's Can We Talk About This? physical theatre company DV8 return to the National's Lyttelton with another dance piece based on a verbatim text; but this time the majority of the interviews are with one man. JOHN (Hannes Langolf) describes a pretty nightmarish life: A childhood dominated by an abusive father saw his mother commit suicide, his siblings also dead, and John himself with a heroin addiction. Unsurprisingly, he grows up into a life of crime, mostly petty theft to fund his drug habit, but what sends him away for a long stretch is an act of arson he can't even remember, the result of a psychotic episode following an overdose. As well as the drug addiction, he's dealt with his lifelong depression with compulsive overeating, so when he goes into prison he tips the scales at 25 stone. While inside he trades both addictions for an obsessive exercise regime, and he's released a lot fitter, but it's not the only significant change. He likes cock now.

The latter part of JOHN takes place in a gay sauna, where John is now a regular. Having had numerous significant relationships with women in his youth, he now identifies as gay, although his feelings towards the casual sex on offer are complex.

Lloyd Newson's piece is for the most part a biography of this complex figure and his miserable experiences, reaching a perverse kind of redemption in the sauna and the acceptance of his sexuality. It's told, as ever, in a mix of verbatim theatre and dance, a disjointed, jerky series of movements on Anna Fleischle's almost permanently revolving set that seems an apt reflection of a chaotic life.

Where it's less successful is in marrying up its two distinct elements. The concluding sauna sequence, heralded by a FULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!from three of the dancers, is obviously a part of John's life story as well, but its exploration of the sauna's two owners and many of its regulars feels like part of a different show. Its worrying stories of unprotected sex and people's chillingly laissez-faire attitude towards contracting HIV (a schoolteacher almost seems to be actively seeking out to catch it, reasoning that his lifestyle means it's inevitable sooner or later so he might as well get it over with) seem like they should be part of a more in-depth examination.

The transition within John's own story is abrupt too; until he starts frequenting the sauna we've never had a suggestion that he might be questioning his sexuality, and while we see him swapping his addictions for exercise in prison we might have got a clue that he was confronting this side of himself as well. So JOHN is a powerful show, but by spending the majority of its running time on one man's life story then trying to expand into a wider issue it feels somewhat like two different shows that have been forced together.

JOHN by Lloyd Newson is booking in repertory until the 13th of January at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

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