Criminal, addict, arsonist, lover, brother, and father–this, in a nutshell, is John. Choreographer and DV8 Artistic Director Lloyd Newson interviewed real-life John for his verbatim theater work on love and sexuality. As it happened, his powerful testimony inspired John, the performance (and main character). I saw it Thursday night at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, broadcast live from U.K’s National Theater. John was an evolution of the kind of physical theater DV8 is known for: verbatim theater works from unaltered textual sources. Here, John’s word-for-word interview was interwoven with four additional interviews on the subject of men’s sexuality. The production itself was composed of movement, spoken word, soundscape, and a single revolving set through which the performers moved. Add close-up and sweeping camera angles from the front and sides of the proscenium stage, and I was left with an intimate glimpse into an exceedingly personal narrative.
John, the performer and protagonist of the work, started his narrative–the real-life John’s narrative–at the beginning. He was one of four children who grew up together in an abusive household in England. As he paced through the claustrophic high-walled set, with corridors, doors, and panels arranged to indicate the rooms of his childhood home, we saw his unfortunate sister, locked by their father in her room so she couldn’t eat and therefore wouldn’t gain weight. His brother strapped to a bed being whipped. And, years down the road (although this segue took just minutes), his mother, an alcoholic widow subsisting on sherry and chocolate. The story quickly spiraled down the multiple rabbit holes of John’s increasing desperation; he veered toward drugs, alcoholism, shoplifting, homelessness, a very brief fatherhood followed by a 20-year disconnect. Finally there was recovery , uncountable losses, unintentional arson, and a prison sentence. Although John’s story would have been engaging and evocative on its own, depressiveness aside, its visualization into movement added a significant dimension: it allowed the words to be seen. It gave them space to live.
Every word and feeling was tied to a movement, rooting the performer to the rapidly shifting worlds he described. Simultaneously the movement tied him to the space of the stage itself–the realm of visibility. At times it was pedestrian and organic, as if improvised; other parts came across as specific and intentional. The characters were and moved as distinct individuals. A confession about shoplifting required shifting sideways while performing sleight-of-hand gestures and several sidelong glances. Then, when John was well into his life story and had begun turning things around by working in an administrative position at the prison, the sounds of a clock ticking seem to direct the back-and-forth nods of his head, the turns of the pages in his binder, and his seated position at his desk.
It was in the latter half of the production that the set pieces came to be recognized as the spa, a central location for John as he began to acknowledge his homosexuality. Here, other towel-clad men came forward to share their experiences. Watching, I realized how effective a set can be as a tool to unite seemingly disconnected narratives. The men who were interviewed didn’t know each other, and they had only one thing in common–this theme of love and sex. Only a few spoke directly about the spa, a place where men came to have sex with each other. As a theatrical device, the spa conveniently threaded five very different voices together without sacrificing their authenticity and verbatim-ness.
Throughout, Newson played with literal and abstract interpretations of the text. One of the most literal (and humorous) interplays of text and movement came later, when another man, the spa owner, described the arduous process of cleaning literal shit out of his establishment. Apparently, some crap had gotten on his shoulder, and when he realized it, he demanded to know why no one had told him about it for hours. As he recounted the episode, he fixed his eye on the spot on his right shoulder and quickly crab-walked sideways to the left.
Although incontestably deep and dark, the work lifted near the end, when it started to venture more doggedly into the sexual realm. Behind the graphic, occasionally discomfiting details, what ultimately rose up were John’s words, this time joined with stillness: “I have so much love and affection to give, but I haven’t been able to express it all these years.” At the spa, sexuality was culture, but more broadly it was self-acceptance. It was, finally, a way to move on from a lifetime of depression–it was one explanation, if not justification, for John’s countless transgressions.
The articulation Newson is able to bring to his movement by supplementing it with text is unavailable elsewhere in dance; indeed, his “verbatim theater” can no longer be called dance. But theater also gains in the marriage of text to extensive, clear movement. What I perceived, coming from the dance side of things, was a greater articulation in the words and their delivery–the movement, whether simplistic and literal or complex and musical, supplied the subtext of the work. It added to its characters an unspeakably human edge, a full body language.