27th Dec2014

John – Theatre

by timbaros

press a_24 performer_hannes langolf_photographer_hugo glendinningThe term ‘John’ is a word associated with a man who visits prostitutes. It’s also the name of the central character in a show with the same name.

John, now playing at the National Theatre, is an extremely unique theatre experience. The first half of the show is about a man named John. He’s had a hard life, classifies himself as straight, but he goes to gay saunas. The second half of John takes place in a gay sauna where we continue to hear John’s story as well as the stories of other patrons in the sauna, including the owners. So John is a story about men, sex, love, intimacy, and real life.

Lloyd Newson, who conceived, directed, and choreographed John on behalf of DV8 Physical Theatre, had three researchers go to say saunas primarily in London and asked patrons if they were willing to be interviewed. Newson conducted the interviews with just a handful of the men, but one man in particular, John, stood out. And it became clear to Newsom that John would be the central character in his new play.

So the first half of John tells his story. He came from a very disturbed Northern background where his father was a rapist and his mother was an alcoholic. He’d been married, had lots and lots of girlfriends, and two children. He also has a criminal record with 2 convictions. He’s been in prison (where he discovered his homosexuality), homeless for a time, but he turns his life around by getting a degree at the Open University. He goes to saunas to connect to men, not necessarily in a sexual way but more in an emotional way. He wants to be normal, be part of the middle class, be part of a community. And his life is portrayed on stage in a unique way – a revolving stage that revolves as the story is told. Also more unique is that the actors perform physically movements with their entire bodies. They twist and turn and go sideways and bend. And what’s fascinating about this is that they continue to do this the entire show, while at the same time telling the story, bending and moving. So we get a glimpse into John’s life as told by him and he and his fellow actors revolve and bend and tell a story that never once gets boring.

The second half of the show takes place in a gay sauna. There is a very well choreographed bit when three actors constantly undress and dress, several times, but it’s very interesting in how it’s done – it’s al choreographed in a way so that their clothes are moved by another actor to a different area only to be picked up by one of them to get dressed again, and the process repeats itself. We get to meet the owners of the sauna, who tell stories in what they find and put up with in their sauna. ‘They’ tell us that once they found someone dead, a young Portuguese man, and that his mom wanted to pay a visit as she wanted to see where her son had died. They also go into detail about at times finding ‘poo’ in the sauna. It’s actually quite funny when they describe where and how they find it, even in the jacuzzi. There’s also an attendant who gives us a rundown of what’s in the sauna: gloryholes, sling room, so as the stage turns around, we see more of the sauna and more of it’s ‘patrons’. Another man says that he doesn’t care that he’s being reckless or not. And like in any sauna, the men walk around and around and around, ignoring the ones they don’t want to be with and ignoring the ones they want to be with. But it’s the physical movement in the show that makes it very unique. The actors are moving, constantly, in tandem with each other. It’s ballet without the pointy toes.

But John is ultimately about gay men and gay saunas, intimacy and them searching for something they’re not too sure about. And while this show could’ve only been about John’s life story, or a separate show about saunas, John is a show that is so unlike anything you will have seen this year. Kudos not just to Andi Xhuma who plays John but to the entire cast (and Newson) for putting on a show that is really hard to describe but definitely needs to be seen.
John is playing at the National Theatre until January 13, 2015. To buy tickets, click here: