Annie Baker’s last play at the National Theatre, The Flick, turned its gaze out onto the audience. A vast bank of cinema seats faced us: unoccupied, they still seemed to watch us as we sat in the space where the silver screen should be. John, as realised in Chloe Lamford’s set design, redoubles this feeling. The stage is turned into the communal areas of a Gettysburg Bed & Breakfast, decorated with the kind of chaotic inconsistency that comes from following where heritage consumerism leads, credit card details dutifully at the ready: Renaissance-inspired angels, a miniature Colonial-era town hall, a Victorian American Girl doll and hundreds of her ringleted friends all gazing out with beady glazed eyes. History made kitsch.
A young couple have come to Gettysburg to immerse themselves in these uncanny riches: or more precisely, he’s come for the battlefields outside, for the promise of more authentic Civil War relics, while she’s reluctant, mollified by the prospect of a home-from-home that’s full of comfortingly creepy little stuff. While he goes out hunting for history with an audio guide and a special spook-detecting stick, she comes to luxuriate in ghosts of a different kind, in the company of spry B&B host Mertis (MaryLouise Burke). She’s trapped in a hyper-feminine landscape by her cramps (in the only realistic stage depiction of period pain I’ve ever seen, Jenny creeps down the stairs on hands and knees, announces “I feel like I’m giving birth to my uterus”) but her pained, fixed smile at Mertis’s bizarre quirks softens under the influence of red wine. And as she meets Mertis’s visionary friend Genevieve (a wonderfully stately June Watson), it turns into the ecstatic inner glow of a convert. The scene where three women sit round a table and discuss their feelings of being watched, of quasi-spiritual experiences and of living with madness, is pure Caryl Churchill-esque magic.
This a play that goes nowhere and everywhere. Pulling one straight narrative line out of the ideas buried in Baker’s play feels like trying to tug a single shiny strand out of a doll’s ringleted pigtail – slippery and futile. It’s a work that deals in ambiguities, in multiple realities overlapping and enriching each other. This B&B is both haunted and not haunted. And its guests are struggling to resolve conflicting versions of reality: Jenny (Anneika Rose) and Elias (Tom Mothersdale) both want to be together, and to be apart, and the slow bickering burnout of their relationship teeters between the ridiculous and the painfully naturalistic.
Small, shameful, petty details unfold – it feels voyeuristic to watch them retreat into childishness, wrapped in blankets or sulking on the stairs. Director James MacDonald’s production is minutely detailed, and, in true Annie Baker style, slow. Not boring. But confident in its own power, and willing to tease the audience, to hold things back. When this young couple disappear off stage, you can hear the clumps and thumps upstairs, the muffled sound of an argument, and then one huddled figure traipses down the stairs to be alone in the company of dolls.
Superficially, this is a story about loneliness and haunting, but really, it breaks apart those ideas and exposes their narrowness. It’s more about the surprising intimacies of the relationship between the individual and the seen and unseen world. About how ‘hauntings’ can be comforting or constricting or liberating. About how we invest objects with meaning and memories and personality, helping to populate our world with little versions of ourselves that become demanding, domineering – as a child, Jenny is tormented by her tyrannical American Girl doll Samantha, and and as an adult, she’s still enough in her thrall to make windows in the cardboard boxes she stores her old toys in.
I felt a pang of recognition, in a week where I’m battling through a house move where each object, on the brink of relegation to the charity shop pile, gains new poignancy and personality. “You can’t leave me”, they whisper up to me. (A friend once told me he couldn’t throw away a vacuum cleaner, preferring to pension it off to the garage for its seven years of loyal service).
Over red wine, wise Genevieve explains her journey to make peace with that inescapable gaze, how she’s come to feel that watching as a kind of acceptance – something that welcomes you into oneness with the universe. ‘John’ is a wonderfully esoteric route into ancient philosophy: Mertis identifies her faith as Neoplatonism, reads out Lovecraft in the brooding darkness. Against this rich backdrop of ideas, her B&B becomes a universe in microcosm: a place she’s created through sheer force of will, its living and object inhabitants given life by the care she’s put into it, and also by the centuries of other people who’ve lived there, investing it with their memories and weaving their lives through its corridors.
Mertis’s description of the transcendental rightness she finds in her husband George, who may or may not exist, as a tiny candlelit set of angel chimes spins and tinkles, is one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever felt on stage. Hundreds of doll eyes twinkle back at it, an image of communion that has the Romantic power of Coleridge’s “silent icicles, quietly shining to the quiet Moon”.
Baker spins kitsch into something profound, sees the nobility of our attachment to objects around us. It’s part of her deep respect for unusual, ‘quirky’ women characters that lesser playwrights might paint as thin eccentrics, flawed loners. For a moment, I saw Mertis as Laura from The Glass Menagerie – but a Laura who’s free, allowed to be weird, to treasure her tiny glass animals (a literal glass menagerie lives on one side of the stage), and to light, not to blow out candles.
John is on at the National Theatre until 3rd March. Book tickets here.