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Feature | Finding the unknowable in John

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Over the last decade, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker has been one of the young voices changing the face of American theatre. MTC introduced Melbourne audiences to Baker’s work with her ground-breaking Circle Mirror Transformation in the Lawler a few years ago, and now brings her Gothic-tinged drama John to the Fairfax Studio stage. We spoke to MTC’s newly appointed Associate Director Sarah Goodes about directing this play.

The play follows a young couple, Jenny and Elias, who stay at a quirky bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Under the gaze of the eccentric B&B owner Mertis, her blind and equally odd friend Genevieve, and the knick-knacks and dolls that inhabit the place, Jenny and Elias’ relationship bends and folds as they try to find peace with each other.

‘It is a hard play to talk about because you don’t want to pin it down to being just one thing,’ says the play’s director and MTC Associate Director, Sarah Goodes, who recently directed Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland. ‘One of the main things [about John], I think, is how Annie Baker approaches theatre as a very temporal thing, as a movement of time. So when she’s writing these detailed scenes about what people are doing and how they’re doing it, it’s kind of anti-theatrical; she wants the time it takes to do these things to be really honoured. Usually, doing a piece of theatre, it’s like: how do you get this on and off as quickly as possible so we can get to the action of it? But the action and the heart of her piece are quite often in the detailed, everyday activity of being human, which is why the set is so cluttered. It really is quite a philosophical piece, in a way.’

Designing a Bed & Breakfast

The ‘clutter’ Goodes describes comes from Baker’s detailed description of the B&B, including specific examples of the small collectible objects and kitsch knick-knacks that Mertis has decorated the common areas with. Set designer Elizabeth Gadsby will be utilising the stage of the Fairfax Studio in an entirely new and immersive way. ‘[Baker] has written this into it very specifically; everything needs to kind of clash against each other, so you have this overload of different, conflicting patterns of couches and carpet and curtains and knick- knacks, and the music is at odds with what’s going on, and it’s coming out of a tinny, old CD player that looks like a jukebox. And then you have these moments of beautiful harmony, that seem to rise up through the everyday little domestic objects or moments,’ explains Goodes.

‘It’s just a beautiful piece to be working on because I think one of the things theatre can offer that no other medium can is a sense of being in a space with these performers for a duration of time. You can’t fast forward it, you can’t rewind it, you can’t stop it; when the lights go down, you’re on a journey together in the same space until the end of that period of time, and Annie really leans into that. In America she’s very much a part of this movement that’s questioning theatre, and questioning time in theatre, and questioning how things operate.’

Questions and answers

As Baker subtly questions, she allows the audience to create their own answers. The philosophical nature of the play is glimpsed in vague references to H.P. Lovecraft, Heinrich von Kleist, and Latin proverbs. Themes of the past haunting the present, life perspectives gained with age, and the possibility of higher powers or spirits not of this world are all cleverly woven into John’s seemingly quotidian dialogue. In conversation with BOMB Magazine, Baker said that in developing John she was interested in writing a play about older people ‘watching people fifty years younger than them struggle in a way that’s very specific to one’s twenties and early thirties’, and simultaneously she had begun to research religion and the occult.

‘You get this wonderful contrast of these women at a certain stage in their life and this young couple who are in this conflict of their relationship,’ says Goodes. ‘What Annie has beautifully done is sat these two generations together and doesn’t make any comment on it – we just watch them interact and that in itself reveals these incredible differences and connections, and it’s beautiful because it’s gentle and very honest.’

Ghost-like spaces and the suspense of the stage

Goodes is also excited to keep the potential of ‘ghost-like spaces’ in the setting alive. ‘Suspense is one of my favourite things to work on in theatre and there’s a lot of it in this, in a really gentle, beautiful way, and the core of that is always that the possibility is more intriguing than the revelation. I think – not wanting to pin it down, but – it’s much more of an atmospheric piece than a narrative- driven piece. It really is about the moods it evokes, and the possibilities it opens up. And in a strange way, one of the things I really liked about working on Switzerland is that we found something inside that piece that was unknowable, and we really enjoyed keeping that alive. I think that’s a really fascinating thing to be working on in theatre, because there’s this incredible sense of having to suspend your disbelief anyway. There is something very ritualistic about it that does lend itself a little bit to the rituals of religion and spirituality.’

‘I think they’re the types of things that Baker’s really exploring, and our need for them. When you read all of these writers that she’s been reading, you see that that’s what they’re circling – humans’ need for illusions, humans’ need for faith and belief in things, and humans’ need to actually have things that are unknowable to them. When we’re bombarded with information and technology and the answers to everything, I think John really feeds that part of ourselves that still longs for that – the beauty that comes from mystery.’

Sarah Goodes spoke to Stephanie Liew

Annie Baker’s John plays at Arts Centre Melbourne from 10 February.

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