JOHN - MELBOURNE
JOHN, Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, 10 February-25 March 2017. Photography by Jeff Busby
Tears welled up during the curtain call – it just happened. It wasn’t a sad or heart breaking show, it was because I felt proud that I’d just witnessed performers who had crafted their characters so well I was enthralled by them. Four actors, all of whom were obviously supported and led by their director and who were housed in a set that made you part of their brief encounter. Yes I was proud.
John is deliberately slow paced (three hours, with two intervals), a slice of life with a twist. Isn’t life like that? It is set in a civil war-themed B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The set is the sitting room of the B&B with a Parisian breakfast nook with bay windows. And there are doors that take you to the host’s quarters and stairs that lead to the bedrooms – just be careful which one you choose. A grandfather clock plays with time and an illuminated music machine that lulls with Bach. It’s carpeted, vast, full of knick-knacks, dolls and figurines, lamp and candle lighting. One felt uneasily at home. The music is essential to the piece, Bach soothing us into what turns out to be a false sense of security – jolted out by a car pulling up, the sound of a toy railway or rollicking music. All deftly put together by composer and sound designer Russell Goldsmith.
Elizabeth Gadsby’s set and costume design is faultless and engaging down to the smallest detail. The use of revolves delineating the change of scenes worked well; it gave you time to breath. The lighting (Richard Vabre) is critical to the piece and his work is brilliant. In many ways it leads the design, as described; it is all about allowing the actors to move stealthily around.
The excellent direction by Sarah Goodes is nuanced and deliberate. As previously said, the production is slow paced and there are times when she just let the actors “hang”, the audience (mostly) patient as they waited for what would come next; we waited and we were rewarded. You feel that you have gone back in time but there are mobile phones and modern language.
Now, the actors: Mertis Katherine Graven – Kitty (Helen Morse) who runs the B&B with her husband George (Never seen, does he exist) is mild of manner, eager to please, has a hand in time, has a secret, writes a journal and has a best friend; her breakfasts are dubious. Morse is Mertis, she has a particular gait and a loose bit of hair. You can’t help but watch her and you can’t help but be enthralled.
Kitty’s best friend Genevieve Marduk (Melita Jurisic) is blind and somewhat nutty in a restrained, non-restrained sort of way, she wears large sunglasses. Jurisic is nothing short of brilliant, in a gift of a role. Her voice, how her character speaks...and I couldn’t take my eyes from her Vienna Finger biscuit-eating; she was mesmerising.
Then we have the young couple in a fraying relationship having a weekend away to try and mend things and it is not going well. Johnny Carr plays Elias Schreiber-Hoffman, a depressive, sometimes self-loathing character. But he wants the relationship to get back on track, or not, after his girlfriend Jenny Chung (Ursula Mills) has “strayed”. Carr is captivating, self-deprecating and funny in a very fine performance. Mills is cagey as Jenny, suffering dreadful period pain and hating the cold, she too delivers a strong and compelling performance.
Four people, all with secrets in a house that also has a secret; it is about connection and empathy or the lack thereof. Annie Baker’s writing is often described as supernatural realism and it has that edge. I loved it.