Taboo-Busting Dance Theatre: DV8's JOHN

By James FitzGerald Last edited 47 months ago
Taboo-Busting Dance Theatre: DV8's JOHN ★★★★☆ 4

Hannes Langolf. Photo by Hugo Glendinning.

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

John is one of those shows where you just know straight away. You know that the rotating stage split into rooms has fabulous symbolic potential as a wheel of fortune, and as a furious treadmill for characters to pace, dance and soliloquise on. You know — even if you aren't familiar with DV8’s idiosyncratic brand of ‘physically integrated theatre’ — that the flowing contortions the actors hurl themselves into will have huge capacity for expression and double-entendre. You know that the first arse you see won’t be the last (fair warning). And you know from his early salvo — "it was just the way I was brought up" — that the titular John telling us his desperate life story could be everything the programme calls him: lover, criminal, father, arsonist, graduate, charmer, survivor.

It’s surprising how instant your judgement of a show can sometimes be. And surprising how a seemingly-telegraphed narrative can twist and turn, like an interpretive dancer’s torso, into something which is unpredictable. Over portentous notes, the production begins with that spinning wheel, as the eponymous protagonist (Hannes Langolf) talks us through a sequence of domestic tragedies which resulted in his drug- and crime-addled life on the streets. And it ends with (a somewhat drawn-out) inquest played out in a gay sauna about the risks men take in the name of sex.

What happens in the intervening, action-packed 75 minutes is John’s story of crime, punishment, and hopeful redemption through meaningful love. Although the show is called John, it might as well have been called Frank, with taboo-busting later stages that consider attitudes to HIV-positive intercourse.

As a story, John is one you couldn’t make up. DV8’s director Lloyd Newson is quoting the testimony of one candid individual who walked through his doors when he was interviewing real men about relationships.

While it tackles gritty themes, there are lighter moments — "I had a council flat, benefits, a kid; I’d cracked it!" is one of many poignant corkers — but the challenge came in finding nuances in the delivery. That’s where the supremely-choreographed ‘physical integration’ enters. You really have to see it to believe it: the effect is somewhere between dance, martial arts, boyish rough-and-tumble and oblique sign language. We see an agitated John syncopating his gestures to the ticking of a clock in prison then a shifty John pirouetting and lurching as he enacts a supermarket theft.

We’ve not even mentioned the supporting cast, who are instrumental in this touching, witty — and very often naked — depiction of a Man’s World as it tilts off its axis.

JOHN runs until 13 January 2015 at the National Theatre with a live broadcast in cinemas on 9 December. Tickets are £15-£25. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 05 November 2014