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National Theatre, London
BY ANY standards, Annie Baker’s John is an astonishing play. Imaginative, free-thinking and anarchic, in the hands of James Macdonald at the National, it's totally captivating.
Its premise, you could argue, is that the universe has its own spiritual life and that all matter, breathing and inanimate, is possessed of a soul.
As a result, human life is a tiny presence in an unimaginably complex reality and human beings, far from possessing knowledge and power and superiority, struggle with an individual isolation and irrationality that engenders madness. At least, that’s my understanding.
But the strength of the work is not in its thesis. Rather, the question of what does or doesn’t exist is its powerful driver, while its wacky and darkly comic atmosphere tells us only that anything can happen.
The story is earthed in what could be commonplace. Jenny and Elias are a young US couple who, close to break-up, check into a modest B&B near Gettysburg for healing and respite.
But, immediately the batty old landlady proprietorially opens the curtains at the start of the play, there's a blast of excitement and tangible unease at the brooding presence and scary watchfulness of Chloe Lamford’s brilliant and detailed set, with its proliferation of silent, staring dolls, angels, statuettes and carved faces.
Something about life in the lifeless really chills and the expectation is that a ghost story is about to unfold, but John is far more original than that. Despite a slow first act which luxuriates in fragmented dialogue, we're soon transfixed by lines which promise cliche but, in reality, deliver anything but.
“What's going to happen next?” is the question that holds us breathless. By the second act we are hanging on to every word and laughing repeatedly at the unexpected and, by the third, we are in thrall.
All four performances are splendid. Marylouise Burke creates a benign, delightfully eccentric landlady while June Watson as Genevieve freezes the blood. And Anneika Rose and Tom Mothersdale as the young couple provide characterisations of exquisite subtlety.
They remind us, as they squabble, of our infinite and ludicrous capacity for discord and of our common struggle against loneliness in an incomprehensible, terrifying and untameable world.
Who is the eponymous John? For an answer, see this witty and bold play. It will creep through your pores like frost.
Runs until March 3, box office: nationaltheatre.org.uk
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