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Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker's haunting play has its Sydney debut in a glorious production
There’s an idea that theatre is ritual. You gather in the dark with strangers and collectively experience people enacting slices of life; these people are sometimes so close you could reach out and touch them (please don’t touch them). At the end, hopefully, you will be in some way shifted – perspective changed, mood lighter, ideas a little bigger. And few linger in the ritual of life in quite the same deliberate and staunchly realistic way of American playwright Annie Baker.
If you’ve heard of Baker, you’ve probably heard of her famous pauses – her scripts may look slim but they come with long running times. This really frustrates some people. Others revel in it. How are you at sitting with those awkward moments? Because the stilted ways our conversations drift and stop and start are meticulously recorded and adhered to by Baker; it’s all so real it starts to feel off-kilter. That’s the meat of John, directed here by Craig Baldwin. Every pause counts and everything is weird. Or is it?
The Reginald Theatre – the smallest in the Seymour Centre – has been transformed by designer Jeremy Allen into the kind of bed and breakfast that causes bewildered horror for the Gilmore Girls or the Pawnee Parks and Rec department. This one is in the historical American town of Gettysburg, and it may or may not be haunted. There are dolls everywhere, porcelain dolls with big eyes and pigtails and ringlets. There are knick-knacks covering every available surface. It’s either suffocating or delightful.
Jenny (Shuang Hu, in a remarkably considered stage debut) and Elias (James Bell) don’t know what to make of it, and they don’t quite know what to make of Mertis (Belinda Giblin), the owner, either. She offers them peanut butter fudge and stares at them until they try it. She asks that they call her Kitty. (They don’t.)
In a lesser play, Mertis would be two-dimensional – an eccentric spinster who probably has cats and tries to force interaction from her guests. Baker’s gift, however, is that her plays function as an inhale, expanding the ribcage of the theatre and creating more space for inner lives. Mertis is thoughtful and complicated and twice-married; her friend Genevieve (Maggie Blinco, stealing every scene) – another ‘batty old lady’ – is either brilliant or absurd, and who can tell from one moment to the next. Both are much more than they first appear.
Jenny, plagued by period cramps and struggling in her relationship with Elias, camps out with the two women for a night of wine and trading confidences. It’s here that what might be the heart of the play emerges – have you ever felt watched, or watched over? And how did you feel about that?
We are all a little haunted – by what others think of us, by the surveillance of lovers, by gods, by our past, by actual ghosts. John is about all of that and also none of that; it’s about the fragile, obligatory, uncomfortable relationship breakdown between Jenny and Elias; it’s about Mertis and Genevieve and their quiet discoveries of selfhood. It’s about the little blessed absurdities and hundred heartbreaks of tying lives together and trying to make sense of it.
The three and a half hours fly by as Christmas lights mysteriously turn themselves off and on and the Jackson room has a leak or maybe a ghost. Elias slurps his cereal and Jenny tries not to be annoyed by it. Genevieve eats every cookie on a communal plate. There are ripples of laughter and big laugh lines; there’s a capsule representation of period cramps that will ring vivid and true to anyone who menstruates; there are mysteries and helpless silences and fights and even, sometimes, voices raised in song.
Craig Baldwin helms the play with a self-assured thrumming of empathy; every pause earned, every scene thoughtful. His cast turns out finely observed, keenly-judged performances; Giblin’s Mertis is pleasant and disconcerting; Blinco’s Genevieve is all bluster and gusto. Bell, as Elias, brings the welcome acidity of archness and irony; and Hu’s Jenny is our touchstone, curious and brimming with feeling.
John is marvellous and harrowing, and surprisingly joyful. You sit there in the dark and give your attention to the small moments of uncertainty and solace that make up life and it’s like an embrace. No one onstage has as an easy explanation for why life is like this; maybe it’s okay that you don’t either.