Writing this on the Sunday following Tuesday’s press night has allowed me to watch other reviews come in of DV8’s latest dance-theatre work. Looking at them I began to question my memory of the show, recognising less and less of John in what I read; for whatever it’s been dubbed over the last opinion-splitting week one thing John is not – despite all claims to the contrary – is a play about gay saunas. Granted the second half is set in one; and granted the world of the gay sauna, or at least its depiction here, is so eye-poppingly, voyeuristically and (to I imagine most of the audience) shockingly revealing it’s no surprise that the sauna has dominated discussion. But reducing the show to these terms – which many have done over the past week – does disservice to a beautifully spun piece about escape and intimacy, love and sex, men and masculinity.
Created by Lloyd Newson, John is a tale of two halves – the first a potted life history of a man called John, the second a piece set in a gay sauna in which John is one of many protagonists, both using verbatim interview transcripts. The first half is dominated by the hellishness of John’s early life, of a childhood home with an abusive father and shoplifting mother who cajoles her children into stealing school uniforms. It drives John to petty crime, repeatedly, and to drugs; he’s unable to hold down a relationship but becomes a dad; he struggles with that, his habit worsens, his weight balloons, 14 of the 20 people in his drug hostel die; he commits a thoughtless act of arson and ends up inside; he finds his son, is disowned by his son. It’s a difficult, personal story told with disarming understatement by the now middle-aged John; “it was quite stressful,” he remarks casually. He seeks to escape the horrors of the day-to-day through drink, drugs, intimacy, the erasure of arson; to live what “middle class people would call a normal life.” Hannes Langolf’s portrayal of John is a study in vulnerability, Newson’s understated choreography embellishing key moments and phrases like a gentle underscore, Langolf’s body often swaying, contorted, as if twisting into himself to draw out a memory, and often – like his life – on the brink of a fall.
And then there’s a shift. Suddenly John is out of prison, and this time he wants to stay out. He goes to a gay sauna, looking for something – intimacy, gratification, escape, acceptance, anonymity. Suddenly John becomes this world; John becomes one of many as new characters are introduced in the sauna, gay and straight men, young and old, professionals, students, addicts, homeless. Their communication inside the sauna is non-verbal, mostly; it’s brutal and empowering, a code of judging only by the cover as half-naked men cruise round the corridors and private rooms, eyeing each other up, disappearing (or remaining visible) in a cabin for sex.
What’s thrilling is not so much the sex but the possibility of sex. This is Barthes on striptease – the stripper, the objectified, becomes desexualised at the moment of nudity; the thrill is all in the slowness of the reveal, the unspoken potential of the cruise. It’s about limits and discovery; it’s not even, here, about being gay – how much is John attracted to the bodies of the other men? Do he want to look at them, touch them, touch one of them? Does the teacher on Grindr in his classroom have the nerve to fix a date during break-time?
The lurch in tone between the first and second halves is jarring but bridgeable, if they’re seen as movements in the same symphony; the first establishing, through John’s early life, motifs of liminality, intimacy and escape that are reprised in the second against the backdrop of a gay sauna. Its clientele – the half dozen or so we meet from the 10,000 who pass through its doors every month – develop themes, visual and narrative, established through John’s story, the specificity of his life opening out to wider questions of male sexuality as the show progresses. In the former, John’s attempt to forget the horrors of his domestic situation are acts of erasure (arson, a burning away of the past) and intimacy (a string of relationships). So, too, is the escape longed for by the men in the sauna, all searching for a form of release, discovering escape through connection. It’s a beguiling paradox of closeness and distance – “you don’t know these men,” remarks an interviewer, “and you don’t like the look of them, but you’re saying it’s intimate.” The circulating of the men as they cruise bare-chested round the corridors and cabins echoes the revolving rooms of John’s opening tableaux; endlessly spinning possibilities, blank shelves and empty rooms that might have held any number of lives, of encounters.
I said attempt to forget, because John is also a piece about memory. Its very nature is verbatim, recalled; the revolving set and its dizzying possibilities are like tracing pathways of memory through the brain, unearthing memory lanes. John’s tone sways between the specific, ultra-detailed and the general, and sometimes his memory fails him – he cannot recall the detail of his act of arson; he “basically didn’t do it” because he can’t remember. And as every action, being both retrospective and selected, edited for the purposes of staging, is therefore an isolated memory-snap, John also becomes a play about choices and consequences, perhaps most obviously represented by the unprotected sex many men in the sauna choose to have, despite the dangers, despite the irresponsibility, because of the thrill of it, because of the anonymity of sex in this world; if a man were to infect another man here, nobody would find out. A graphic break from the show’s fluid, choreographed world as four cast display placards with pictures of STI-riddled penises is enough to challenge that.
As with much of DV8’s work, John is an intensely male performance, a piece about masculinity and communication and identity. Where the real-life John is at now is unclear; the narrative has no conclusion, leaving him lying on his bed, breathing deeply, longing for a “normal” life, for someone he can express stuff with; a final exhalation contains deep, deep loneliness. For the hours he must have spent with Newson, through these remarkably personal interviews, one can only hope that the process of saying it all out loud was comforting.
I said earlier that John isn’t a piece about gay saunas, despite the fact that I’ve talked a lot about one here. So yes, look, there is a lot about a gay sauna and “a lot of penis” as someone next to me said on the way out. But it’s a gay sauna, just the one, whose proprietors are constantly reminding the audience of the variety of their clientele; I’m about as qualified as QuentinLetts to draw any broader claims that John represents ‘the gay sauna experience’ – it’s not even trying to, and indeed I imagine there will be men for whom this piece’s specific representation of a sauna feels foreign or imbalanced. Reducing such a rich study of the male psyche to such a narrow focus feels at best like clumsiness and worst like wilful misinterpretation and, moreover, a collective burying of heads in sand by (some) audiences and critics who fail to see John has anything more than a piece about gay men. We need to talk about what John has to say; gratification has always been there, says one speaker in the piece, and we can either choose to acknowledge it or ignore it. In an interview with Matt Trueman (who argues convincingly elsewhere why the National’s marketing campaign for the production might be harming the quality and scope of this discussion), Newson talks about a masculine approach to sex that is curtailed by conformity and social stereotype, about the secretive nature of conversation as a result, be that among gay men or straight, in saunas or not. “All these men are searching for something,” he says, “be it escape or validation or gratification” – sometimes as the protagonist, sometimes passively; and here, on the stage of the National, in their own words, is exactly where their voices should be.