Hard-hitting, gritty, dark.
Through interviews with 50 men Lloyd Newson discussed love and sex, the risks and the sacrifices they were prepared to take. It was through this that John’s story was discovered and is now brought to life.
Rape, beatings, miscarriage, drug use, alcoholism, overdoses. And that’s just the first five minutes.
This is an extraordinary piece of work that is deeply unsettling and incredibly hard to watch, and yet you cannot tear your eyes away from the stage.
The staging itself is simple and yet suits perfectly the whole feeling of the play. First we see two rooms of John’s house as a child, sparsely dressed. The stage then rotates, revealing a corridor which then leads on the other side to another two rooms. For the first sequence the stage rotates constantly as John narrates his childhood and adolescence, walking between rooms into explicit scenes, both frozen and physical. You are immediately put on edge and the continuous motion does nothing to settle you, nor the music overlaid, a constant through the show that you barely notice, yet notice the absence of. Throughout the play the walls of the set are realigned to make new rooms, and at one point a maze, yet you don’t notice the changes at all as your eyes are always drawn to the characters onstage at any one time.
There is a synthesis between the movement and speech that is developed throughout, and cleverly draws your attention or serves to highlight particularly hard subjects and unique viewpoints, for example the unsteady and erratic actions of drug users are displayed through swaying, jolting falls into one another…
The story breaks the narrative of John’s story for a while when the gay sauna is established, introducing alternative viewpoints on the subject of love and sex. Here we are presented with an extremely open and honest discussion and varying opinions of addiction, sexual compulsion, the search for love and the risks that entails, including a candid interview about HIV. In one particular sequence the owners of the sauna describe the risks men take with one of them affirming that education about the risks is out there, but people choose to ignore it and risk their health, in the pursuit of intimacy in the case of another interviewee.
The physical theatre sequences were restrained throughout to specific moments, and this served to really bring out the serious issues and conflicting standpoints. The juxtaposition between movement and stillness throughout is a key tool. At one point one of the owners describes the search for sexual partners, the predatory nature of it. During this time the men walk between a maze of walls, on the periphery of your vision while he leans against a wall, a focal point in a constantly shifting tide. It is only when any of the men stop, confronting another, that your eye is drawn to them before they slip away again.
Add to this the very straight delivery of the words, taken from the interviews. It is very personal, and you cannot help but be drawn into the person’s world, in particular John, and it is to him that they finally return. One man, centre stage, speaking of his hopes and dreams for the future, trying to put aside the horrors of his past.
Whilst there are moments of comic relief, they are few and far between, although necessary. The intensity of the performances, particularly by the exquisite Hannes Langolf as John, submerge you in this explicit view into one man’s life, and the issues and trials he has, and continues, to face.
John is at the National Theatre (+16 years) until January but will also be broadcast on 9 December in cinemas (+18).