This was our very first foray into the world of live theatre screened direct to your local cinema. I’d heard both good and bad things about this form of presentation; that it’s just like being there in real life and that the camera angles are amazing; and I’d also heard that you just sit there and sigh “I wish I could be there in person”. Having experienced it first hand, on the whole I’d agree with the first statement. The camera angles are indeed amazing, and you get an excellent combination of both close-up and the wider full stage view; and because you hear the audience’s reactions and indeed see the audience settling down at the beginning, and leaving at the end, you really do get a sense of being there. And of course, all this for half the price of the train fare to get to London in the first place. The only mental sideswipe I experienced was at the end not being able to join in with the London audience’s applause – that really did emphasise the fact that you weren’t there. But, as like as not, if you hadn’t seen the NT Live coverage, you probably wouldn’t have seen the show either. So I classify the whole enterprise as A Very Good Thing. And also, presumably, someone somewhere has a nice recording of the performance so that it can be kept for all time.
We’d seen DV8 once before, at the Wycombe Swan in 1997, performing Bound To Please, a curate’s egg of a show that took on the subject of age and beauty, with the bold highlight of the evening being the sexagenarian Diana Payne-Myers, elegantly and gracefully dancing naked in full balletic style. But the piece was hampered by a rather ham-fisted desire to turn against and humiliate the audience which wasn’t really necessary. We also saw their television film The Cost of Living, which I remember being rather entertaining and very positive. Although much of those shows is now a distant memory, I am convinced that John is a far superior work to either of them.
Lloyd Newson’s initial creative idea was to interview a number of men about their attitudes to sex and love, and to see what themes emerged as a result. What emerged was the remarkable character of John, his story, his relationships, his struggles. About half a dozen of the people interviewed are represented in this piece, but John is by far the most predominant. As this is a verbatim production – nice new buzzword there – all the lines spoken by the performers are precisely as John and the other men spoke them at the interview. As a result, it’s a 100% true production. The issues raised, the events experienced, the hopes and fears discussed are all real, identified and probed during the interviewing process. This gives the production an unbeatable integrity, acting out real lives through physical theatre, paying homage to genuine experiences and real people.
If you are one of those lovely folks who checks into my blog on a regular basis, gentle reader, then you will know my mantra that I much prefer to see a brave failure than a lazy success. I love to be shocked and challenged in the theatre – and if Quentin Letts considers this as sleazy, amoral and a national disgrace, that’s all the incentive I would need to go and see it. John is full of bold and brave subject matter, and takes it head on in a no-holds-barred exposé – and overall the production is much more a success than a failure. Much has been made of the extended sequence of the comings and goings in a gay sauna, which of course will not be to everyone’s taste, but personally I rarely have a problem with seeing anything sexual on stage, and am much more likely to be offended by violence. There’s quite a bit of that in the first half of the show, as we see John’s early family life, which is damaged by a rapist of a father, a drug dependent mother and siblings in and out of trouble. John takes us on a journey of petty crime, drug addiction, and through a sea of girlfriends – very cleverly suggested by their dresses on hangers – eventually to prison and then an attempt at rehabilitation. His efforts to trace his long-lost son are beautifully told, and end with heart-breaking sadness. This whole sequence was storytelling by dance and physical theatre at its finest.
And then it very much becomes a game of two halves as the scene changes to the gay sauna in an instant, with no preparation for it, and nothing in the earlier material to suggest something like this might be on the cards. It’s just a very sudden change of scenery, emphasis, characterisation and subject matter. At first I found the change rather annoying, as I still felt I wanted to find out more about the John whose character had been built up so effectively by his own words and Hannes Langolf’s magnificent performance; then I found it intriguing to see if the extraordinary juxtaposition between the two threads would work; and then after a while I wanted to go back to the beginning again, as the length of the sauna sequence is simply out of balance with the rest of the performance. The first half of the show reflects John’s first thirty-plus years; in the second half John admits he’s only been to the sauna three times over a period of about six months, so the time spent observing the sauna activities carries an inordinate weight in comparison to the time spent accompanying John through his struggles.
There is a loss of momentum too, as John plays a much smaller part in the second half than in the first – presumably this is where the other voices who were interviewed get to play their part in the proceedings. Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear the day to day activities and concerns of the guys who run the sauna – including their constant battle with the evil and ubiquitous poo, which provided unexpected comic relief; and the sexual proclivities of the teacher were rather amusing – if extremely irresponsible and unwise. But you can’t overcome the fact that the sauna scene has a distinct Lack Of John about it. Nothing against the performers who took a more major part in that scene – it’s just that we’d built up a relationship with John and it was left mid-air. But then, such is the challenge of a DV8 piece – never expect it to comply with the norm.
It’s a really strong production. I loved the revolving stage, so that, in order to remain in full view of the audience, John has to keep pacing through doors and in and out of rooms, providing a visual metaphor of his progress through the stages and locations of his life. The combination of John’s speeches and the dance movement serves to emphasise both; staccato movements accentuating tough words, flowing intimate movements accompanying more personal and private moments. Hannes Langolf has a lot of words to say as John, and it is a testament to his personal fitness that his energy keeps high throughout the whole show, his accurate and demanding dance movements never losing power as his verbal dexterity continues to deliver John’s thoughts and experiences. We really feel as though we know John, and despite (maybe because of) his demons and his struggles, we really like him. Mr Langolf creates a real man out of this interview material.
Lloyd Newson’s choreography has his performers depicting everything from the Neanderthal to the sophisticated and they do him proud. Whilst Mr Langolf is extraordinary in his physical presence, the rest of the cast also form an incredibly good ensemble. Ian Garside provides some memorable moments as John’s son and, along with Taylor Benjamin, as one of the sauna owners. Simple devices, such as the seamless removal of a t-shirt worn by one dancer and on to another give hints of intimacy; whilst the rapid undressing and dressing and undressing again and dressing again by various performers in the background whilst the sauna owners talked about their problems gave the impression of a constantly active and busy changing room, without having a large cast. The dance action/physical theatre is constantly engrossing throughout the performance, and even when the narrative itself loses strength, you always admire the skilful and creative movements of the performers.
If you’re a fan of physical theatre and you like to be challenged this is an excellent production which will give you much to think about and admire, capturing the essence of an unknown person and doing him justice. Technically superb performances are the icing on the cake. To Quentin Letts I say grow up and get real. To be honest, unless you’re straight and you’ve never been confronted with intimate homosexual behaviour, you’re unlikely to be too surprised by anything you see. Years of attending Eurovision discos means Mrs Chrisparkle and I are old hands at that! And I did get an insight into how a couple of gay friends, who met at a sauna, might have started their long-lasting relationship. No names no pack drill! It’s not a perfect show by any means but its positives more than outweigh its negatives and I’d definitely recommend it.
Production photos are by Laurent Philippe, Gergoe Nagy, Kris Rozental and Hugo Glendinning.
Here’s a trailer that gives you a good idea of the show.