John in space

9th December 2014

Tonight’s NT Live broadcast of DV8 Physical Theatre’s John was not exactly business as usual. Absent was a live introduction by the bubbly Emma Freud. Instead we were treated to a video message from a serious-looking Nick Hytner telling us that while the subject matter might not be to everyone’s taste (gay sex, drug use, incest, rape and more) what we were about to see was most definitely art. Then we had a voice-over statement from creator Lloyd Newson illustrated with extracts from films and performance footage of previous DV8 shows. Which reminded you, incidentally, that both BBC and Channel 4 have funded truly remarkable DV8 productions for the screen, albeit a decade and more back. But what I thought mostly was different was the distinctive approach to filming this uncompromising combination of dance, movement and verbatim theatre.

I can see what critics mean when they say that the 75-minute piece feels broken-backed, being a first half about the deprivations and degradations of John’s early life and the remainder about the everyday life of a gay sauna. But for me the two elements came together, at is were, most satisfyingly in a closing sequence of considerable power. I found John entirely compelling, and there were moments when I was open-mouthed with admiration at the performances of Hannes Langolf most especially, but also the rest of an extraordinary troupe of dancers. Lloyd Newson’s choreography is at moments astounding, and throughout there is a rare level of invention.

As for the approach of screen director Robin Lough and the camera team, I was struck by how their treatment took the show out of the theatre and into a kind of electronic virtual space. Yes, there was a shot of the Lyttleton auditorium at the top, and we returned there for the curtain calls, but for the duration of the performance we were in an abstracted screen space woven from designer Anna Fleischle’s dazzling revolve and pitch-perfect stage lighting design by Richard Godin. The sense of a physical stage seemed to drop away to leave us with bodies moving restlessly and remorselessly in spaces that changed and morphed and multiplied. I found the effect entrancing.

What the live broadcast achieved (and which the trailer below only faintly suggests) was a kind of screen choreography that dancers and directors have at times conjured up when working on film or with digital recording. Indeed that’s exactly what director David Hinton did with Newson and DV8 for the television films Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (London Weekend Television, 1990) and Strange Fish (BBC, 1992). But I am not sure I have ever seen this pure kind of screen dance created, as here, on the fly, albeit with endless planning and exceptional execution. Bravo, bravo. I did, however, have one question. With all of that naked and semi-naked male flesh on show, not to mention a fair few cocks, where on earth did they hide the radio mics?

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