Review: JOHN – A visual spectacle

After much critical success, DV8’s latest production, JOHN arrived at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – the last stop in the UK before taking the dance theatre piece to Poland. JOHN was conceived using stimulus consolidated by Lloyd Newsom whom arranged to interview more than 50 men about love and sex. The performance centres on main character John. As we are taken on John’s life journey, we are thrown into an array of time shifts within the narrative. From his pained beginnings to his time spent in gay saunas, JOHN is a visual spectacle absorbed with a powerful score of electronic, popular and thought provoking music.

The most striking element of JOHN is by far the combination of two theatrical forms. Verbatim and physical theatre is an unusual combination, yet within this production, Newson successful portrayed powerful narratives through an array of powerful physicality and dance sequences. With a small ensemble of inspiring performers, the stage consistently felt filled. Duets of characters in the foreground allowed for protagonist John to swing, move and contort himself through the narrative and set. Aided by the use of a revolving stage, the minimal set effortlessly made for an aesthetically pleasing performance.

From the opening of the show, DV8 took no prisoners. The opening five minutes alone left many in the auditorium with a heavy heart whilst evocative issues such as HIV, alcoholism, crime and drugs were all addressed – rather than in an educative and lecturing way, it was instead portrayed through what felt more of a declaration of events. Audiences were invited to become more informed through this performance but with the appeal of verbatim theatre, we are left the option to speak out beyond the performance.  Much of the shows content was hard hitting and if JOHN were a naturalistic play, it would perhaps have been too much for some. Whilst we learn that John was not completely innocent in his life story, we begin to question the authenticity and ethical considerations of portraying true life stories through verbatim theatre. Did the real John tell the truth when interviewed or did he fabricate his life story?

Indeed, with the physicality of the ensemble constantly grabbing the attention of the auditorium, the music too heightened emotions of helplessness. The structure of the performance sped through his life with the first half before almost halting at a lightening pace. The second half, which drew from other accounts from the interview, bonded the narrative of John’s life and allowed the audience members to put into context what we learnt from the john heavy first half.

Needless to say that the cast within DV8 defied gravity throughout the production. With each physical gesture connected to metaphorical meaning and representation, it created a smooth flow for its spectators to digest the mature content shown on stage. From full frontal nudity, to provocative stories of HIV positive men lying about their status, JOHN is a powerful piece of physical theatre that will transform anyone’s opinion of dance, physical theatre or indeed the verbatim form.

Mark McDougall

Image: National Theatre

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