DV8 return to National with John
Lloyd Newson's new productions is based on interviews conducted with men in gay saunas
Lloyd Newson's DV8 Physical Theatre pay their fourth visit to the National Theatre with a grim, uncompromising story of a Geordie called John who escapes one sort of domestic hell on Tyneside for what looks to me like another but is in fact a life of promiscuous hedonism in a gay sauna... There's nothing fantastical or "made-up" about this story, either, which makes it all the more depressing... It's a pilgrim's anti-progress, staged by Newson as a muscly, disjointed, extremely powerful series of ensemble tableaux with hairy-faced John exchanging one nightmare of domestic proximity for an equally intense dream-world of casual confrontation... This contrast is quaintly and ironically underlined in Anna Fleischle's revolving set of a balsa wood jungle, with cramped corridors and doorways, repressive physicality exchanged for a consensual one of free love... John comes to the conclusion that he has so much love to give he must keep on looking... The company of nine (one woman) perform with a dead-eyed, unflinching commitment... The 75 minutes certainly pass in a flash... Did I enjoy it? Not as much as I'd hoped, but more than I expected.
John is a cri de coeur from the lower depths... Lloyd Newson's latest work addresses issues of abuse, addiction and degradation through the testimony of one man whose journey from darkness to some kind of light is savage and salutary in turn... Delivered by Hannes Langolf's John in a kind of offhand murmur, it tells of a childhood of almost unimaginable barbarity... What might have been an interminable, wrist-slitting confessional with added movement is transformed by Newson and his adroit performers (six men and two women) into a potent and engaging study of individual survival against all odds... Throughout the piece, Newson's movement vocabulary is taut, controlled and spatially economical... With more than a glancing reference to Frank Ripploh's groundbreaking gay film, Taxi Zum Klo, John is an illuminating and non-judgmental work of searing honesty... Powerful study of one man's journey from terrifying abuse to redemption.
John, which has a structural twist so out-there that I started to vaguely wonder if I was high on something...The couldn't-make-it-up extremity of John's life could be fodder for exploitative grotesquery, but DV8 emphatically know what they're doing.... John/Langolf's matter-of-fact delivery and total absence of self-pity nips melodrama in the bud.... the company's astonishing physicality controls the tone... the stage is in constant, spinning motion and though Langolf's balletic traversal of it is remarkable... It's engrossing, elegant stuff...Certainly, the latter section could stand up as a discrete work, and it's an undeniably interesting trick to pull... In some ways, the surprise discovery of John's sexuality is the most interesting part of his story, and to suddenly toss his life aside in favour of the almost wantonly banal sauna section feels peculiarly dismissive... The choreography keeps it all ticking over and there is a brief wrapping up of John's story at the end, but it feels like a half-hearted rapprochement.
Lloyd Newson likes controversy... DV8 move with hypnotic skill - crab-like scuttles in court, slo-mo wrestling, sex on the couch... It's all very agonised, lustful, lonely, and quite beautiful... Anna Fleischle's revolving set - partitioned into dingy cubicles - is perfectly grim... Hannes Langolf speaks John's words with honest intensity; his frank, flat tone is moving... John's one stunning moment is when the real John's voice is heard through speakers and the dancing simmers down... John is well-honed and earnestly told but it's a bit dreary... The fault may lie with verbatim theatre in general... Actors tend to sound less real than real people, just as playwrights tend to write more dramatically than real people talk... And is it really controversial? Revelations about John's sexuality aren't startling... At its best we care about a poor man who wants to be settled. At its worst, it feels like a lecture for middle-class people about a murky side of homosexuality.
In this latest show from physical theatre company DV8, John (played by Hannes Langolf) is a man born into a dysfunctional family... In Anna Fleische's ingenious revolving design, the family home is a house of horrors, a place of dark rooms and narrow spaces where the family are constantly glimpsed in poses like broken plastic dolls... DV8 Physical Theatre have always been avant-garde rule-breakers and this latest verbatim piece smashes narrative expectations...Rather than setting up a situation and then focusing on one individual, it begins with John and his appalling experiences while growing up, and just when you've got really interested in him, it broadens out to let us hear from the customers and owners of a gay male sauna. It's a place where John himself is a client... This connection leads to a quiet emotional pay-off in a piece that only glancingly explores male attitudes to sex, and the way that penetration is often confused for intimacy, and how the hunt for sex is more exciting than the actual encounter... But the narrative line is oddly unsatisfying and slightly confusing... John's story is undoubtedly compelling, but the way it is framed sells it short.