Thanks to a generous Quaker, I got hold of a ticket for a filmed performance at the Phoenix, coming live from the National Theatre. I had no idea what I was going to see as the ticket just said ‘John, 18’ which sounded like a Bible reference more than a play title; but when I got there I found it was a play called John, certificate 18* and was billed as an art-form somewhere between dance and acting known as ‘physical theatre’. Sounds interesting, I thought, as my near-neighbour dropped into the seat next to me, having picked up the other ticket. I had never been to any of these live filmed events, though I’ve often wanted to, so I waited with interest. The intro was quite restful: no interminable ads, just a few trailers followed by a short talk by Nicholas Hytner, the NT director. Not so the play. Actors (dancers?) kind of soft-wrestled each other, tumbling over and over in weird holds and maintaining gravity-defying poses almost like a Dali sculpture. The set was rotating and divided into quadrants each separated by a wall, through the doors of which actor-dancers tumbled, shot, slid and glided as they moved from scene to scene, tumbling, flying, holding and never resting.
The play was based on the testimony of John, a man with a troubled childhood who tumbles from an abusive childhood to a homeless hostel to prison and finally to a gay sauna where he discovers his sexuality. And here I began to tire of it; not just because of the relentless movement which made me feel exhausted, but also because the sauna scene went on so long that it began to feel like an Alan Bennett play. I love AB as much as the next well-meaning Guardian reader, but sometimes you get the feeling that his plays are just an excuse to get lots of gay men together so they can have sex. And I got the same feeling with this: that the whole thing was just leading up to this long, long scene where gay men endlessly screwed each other and talked about condoms and HIV. So I was glad when the play ended. Still, that said and done, it was amazing to watch and I’m really pleased I got a ticket. And a lift home from my near-neighbour, Kendall – for which relief much thanks.
*I guess the certificate was because we were in a cinema?