Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 19 – Oct 12, 2019
Playwright: Annie Baker
Director: Craig Baldwin
Cast: James Bell, Maggie Blinco, Belinda Giblin, Shuang Hu
Images by Clare Hawley
Jenny and Elias are visiting Gettysburg, Pennsylvania whilst trying to mend a rough patch in their relationship. They stay at a bed and breakfast, run by an elderly lady named Mertis, who is very nice, but who is also more than a tad mysterious. Her eyes, like her house, are secretive and cavernous, and in Annie Baker’s John, we always feel as though things are not quite what they seem. We see the young couple attempt to make things work, both trying hard not to let go, inside Mertis’ tchotchke-filled house, where past and present converge, unable to disentangle from one another.
Baker’s intriguing play is filled with characteristics of scary stories; lights that turn on and off by themselves, a pianola that plays unprompted, portraits and dolls imbued with a presence that can only be described as supernatural. There are lots of creepy goings on, but in the absence of an obvious genre style pay off, our minds are made to regard Mertis’ world with an unusual complexity, that quite matter-of-factly ventures into the metaphysical.
Director Craig Baldwin manufactures this eerie atmosphere with considerable diligence and detail, supported magnificently by set designer Jeremy Allen and lighting designer Veronique Bennett, who deliver exquisite imagery that has our imagination running wild. The house is in some ways the star of the show, and the work that has gone into making it come alive, is absolutely terrific.
Incredibly nuanced performances by the cast of four take charge of our attention for the entire three-and-a-half hour duration, keeping us guessing at every juncture, making us see things that may or may not be there. Efforts to render a spooky vibe can sometimes feel awkwardly lethargic, especially in Act One, but we are always engaged, always filled with curiosity, even when feeling impatient.
Belinda Giblin is electric as landlady, hugely impressive with the intelligence and rigour that she brings to her portrayal of the enigmatic Mertis. Her close friend Genevieve is played by an exhilarating Maggie Blinco, whose kooky vivacity adds much needed energy to the show. The troubled young couple is depicted with great chemistry by James Bell and Shuang Hu, who are convincing whether loving or fighting, but there is a restraint to their approach that can at times feel at odds with the humour of the piece.
There is much that can be interpreted as strange in Mertis’ home, but there is also a peculiarity to how the visitors struggle with their lives that can easily get unnoticed. The older women share a sense of ease that escapes Jenny and Elias, who we observe to be constantly at odds with the world, always responding to it with resistance and frustration. Mertis accepts things as they are, and nothing seems to unnerve her. She exists in harmony with a cosmos that many think is chaotic. The young ones on the other hand, appear to play by the rule book. They look like normal people doing normal things, but they are in contradiction with a bigger scheme of things, as exemplified by the house they temporarily occupy. The house just is, and it is us who have to learn to adhere to it.