When I first read Annie Baker’s play John I was immediately caught in its spell. I was struck by how it seamlessly soared from the domestic, to the epic. There is an essential mystery inside it that I couldn’t pindown; it vibrated with it and that was what I loved most about it.
In the first week of rehearsals, a week of reading and discussions, we realised the play was like one of Mertis’ precious birds; the more you tried to pin it down the more you clipped its wings. Our job was to open up possibilities and be alert to its potential, while keeping a keen eye on the carefully observed action of everyday life.
Often described as supernatural realism, John is enlightening as it explores our need for empathy and connection, and the grace that will give us freedom from ourselves. When you read the script, Annie Baker includes two quotes which are wonderful to have in your head while reading or watching this play:
Now, my excellent friend,’ said my companion, ‘you are in possession of all you need to know to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, asthought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.
Nunquam minus solus, quam cum solus. Never less alone than when alone.
Being a play that weaves between worlds – where two couples from very different generations sit gently alongside each other – I knew I needed unique, generous actors to bring this piece to life.
Of course, Helen Morse, one of Australia’s great actors of stage and screen, was a perfect fit for Mertis. We began this journey with the beautiful Julia Blake playing the role of Genevieve, but unfortunately, she couldn’t continue.
So it was a real challenge to find someone to step into the role. Luckily, I was able to convince Melita Jurisic to join us all the way from Vienna – on such short notice – and as she pointed out – to play a character who has to consume so many Vienna Finger Biscuits. Together with Ursula Mills from Sydney, and Melbourne’s Johnny Carr, this cast have been a joy to work with.
Annie Baker has written a play that truly celebrates storytelling with a focus on the mechanics of theatre, the temporal nature of it, its intimate relationship with its audience and not one, but two intervals thrown in just to remind you where you are.
Set and Costume designer Elizabeth Gadsby and I spoke a lot about how Annie Baker plays with the mechanics of theatre. In lieu of a red curtain we decided to explore the revolves and Elizabeth came up with a wonderful design that is able to turn like a clock, tracking Mertis’ orchestration of the passage of time through the piece.
Composer Russell Goldsmith and I explored the ‘Ken Burns effect’ from watching his incredible documentary on the American Civil War – all 7 hours of it. And lighting designer Richard Vabre and myself discussed the transcendental power of light; the sun, candles, lamps and Christmas tree lights. Needless to say, this has been a lighting designer’s dream. Geraldine Cook-Dafner has worked tirelessly on the accents for this piece and has been invaluable within the rehearsal room.
In a digital age theatre offers an intimate connection not just with immediate actors right in front of you, but also sitting next to people you may or may not have met before entering an imaginary world of storytelling together. We hope you sit back and enjoy this intriguing journey – one you can only experience in the theatre.
Sarah Goodes’ production of John, plays at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio from 10 February.