John, National Theatre, until 3 March
Going into the Dorfman Theatre is an unusual experience now that Annie Baker’s John is playing there. The first thing you see is a highly traditional pair of red velvet curtains.
But soon Mertis appears to push each one slowly back from the centre, revealing the riotously overcrowded intimacy of her B & B lounge, where a dozen different decorative themes jostle for supremacy: Swiss-style carpentry with folksy cut-outs, an extravagantly illuminated Art Deco CD player, a Victorian piano, an attempt at Belle Epoque in the breakfast area. And every flat and vertical surface is teeming candles, figurines, Swedish Christmas gnomes, and, most unnervingly, dolls.
When the young couple Jenny and Elias arrive, we’re with them in finding their surroundings laughable, and their landlady, with her shapeless cardi, her stoop, and her down-home speech, a charming but outmoded oddity. This alone would not carry you through the nearly three hours’ running time of the play, but Annie Baker is a peerless exponent of ‘slow theatre’. If that idea makes you want to run for the hills, you have underestimated its power to draw you into its seductive rhythms, till you leave all else behind.
As you are folded into the cluttered gentility of the setting, towering emotions and events begin to unfold, we discover the troubles at the heart of the couple’s relationship.
Nothing is quite as it seems in this house. Mertis hints that one of the bedrooms is to be avoided, and is uncertain whether one of the other ones has a door at the moment – sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. And why, in the midst of all this penny arcade profusion, does the garish CD player pour out seemingly nothing but Bach? Does George, Mertis’s unseen invalid husband, actually exist?
Tardis-like, the homely interior accommodates wide and wild themes and resonances. There are Beckettian silences and flights of fancy: when Mertis’s blind friend gives an account of her descent into madness, she invokes the 200 Benedictine monks she found processing inside her brain. The Tiresias of this corner of Gettysburg, she dispenses wisdom and asperity from her own suffering. Despite the chilly bedrooms upstairs, the steamy Southern Gothic flows through the lounge. Watching it all are the inescapable dolls, one of whom is identical to the doll that so terrified Jenny when she was a child.
There is poetry too – in Mertis’s recitation of the collective names of birds (a murmuration of starlings), but her lyrical evocation of the sunset soon turns brutal.
In fact Mertis herself undergoes a miraculous transformation, while always remaining entirely herself. We start by seeing her as a slightly gauche, frumpy woman of a certain age, with limited horizons, but by the end she has revealed, entirely unwittingly, her true stature. A self-described Neo-Platonist, she has allowed her sufferings to forge her into a generous and resolute soul, who has achieved a serene detachment from her troubles past and present, balanced by her warmth and compassion. Her description of what it feels like to fall in love is itself a blow to the heart. As Mertis, Mary Louise Burke, a veteran of Steppenwolf Theatre, gives one of the most remarkable performances I have ever seen.
For all that you spend nearly three hours sitting down and looking through the fourth wall, this is truly immersive theatre. See it.