Annie Baker is one of the greatest playwrights alive. She has written masterpieces such as The Aliens and The Flick, which we have been lucky enough to see in productions by Nadia Tass, productions that have had the appearance of transparent and clairvoyant translations of Baker’s vision and have yielded performances at Red Stitch from young actors – Brett Ludeman in Aliens, Ngaire Dawn Fair in Flick – which have compelled awe.
Now we have a new play by Baker in a production by the new co-associate director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, Sarah Goodes, with the great Helen Morse. It is not as flawlessly empathic as the Tass productions but Goodes – the director of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland, who elicited such a magnificent performance from Sarah Pierse in that thriller about Patricia Highsmith – has the wonderful asset of Morse, as great an actress as this country has produced, and one every inch as good in Melita Jurisic, whose performance is one of breathtaking authority and brio. If the young duo of Johnny Carr and Ursula Mills are not at this level – which is a pity – they have their moments of angular irony and berserk rage that make their mark.
Annie Baker, still in her mid-30s, is one of the most significant American dramatists to appear since the heyday of Sam Shepard, if not Edward Albee. She has the ability, uncanny beyond words – though words and the action that comes about through them, and around them, are her vehicle – to conjure a drama from the everyday that nonetheless yields great gulfs of poignancy and poetry, as if everyone were soaring towards, or outstaring, a tragic destiny as the shifts are filled, the coffee is poured, the town is endured.
If that makes her sound like Chekhov – and we saw Nadia Tass do an Annie Baker version of Uncle Vanya last year, with a little less sureness of touch – it’s true that Baker has a more clamorous talent, a bent towards histrionic aria that remembers the ghosts of all the theatrical union dead, O’Neill and Albee and the great Tennessee himself.
Ghosts are everywhere in John, ghosts from the battlefields and the surgery that followed it, ghosts of sexual liaisons someone in a couple may not have stopped, ghosts of hippie childhoods and the blight they might have engendered, ghosts of madness and marriage. It is a beautiful play, bold and full of colour, but with a delicacy of écriture, a deep humorous richness and poignancy that comes, not least, from the way it memorialises the art of the older actress, the wisdom and wildness of older women.
A young couple come to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of a famous Civil War battle and an even more famous speech by Abraham Lincoln, that great American president and victim. The guy (Johnny Carr) is a volatile bombastic Jew; the girl (Ursula Mills) is a bit edgy, frail, capable of resentment. They’ve come from New York and they find themselves in the midst of the encircling charm and nightmare of Mertis Katherine (Morse), B&B hostess extraordinaire. She plies them with pancakes, she plays them Bach, she talks with an endless tinkling burble, at once nervous and relentlessly bright. And then there’s her girlfriend, Genevieve (Jurisic), old and formidable, who first went mad, then blind, and now has no greater destiny than to sing the song of her desolations with a fierce self-possession.
It’s a hell of a play, delicious and unstable, with a nervy brilliant unpredictability that co-exists within the arc of a plot that’s partly frosted Gothic writ comic and partly the drama of a wrestling uncertain relationship. While the old women parade or evade the tales they go through the paces of, the young couple squabble and moan and fight towards an endgame.
It’s a subtle and supple piece of dramatic writing full of slynesses and suggestions and innuendos. Mertis’s offstage husband, ailing and enigmatic, is called George and this mere act of naming seems like a faint but distinct tribute to Albee’s sense of ghostly presences in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And that’s appropriate, too, because with the lightest of touches Baker pays homage in John to the great skill with which Albee took the then dominant absurdism of Beckett and Pinter and gave it a very American habitation and name by blending it with the traditional Sturm und Drang with which O’Neill and then Williams and Arthur Miller had given the American theatre its defining histrionic and realism.
There are faults, of course. It’s a pity in the MTC’s John that the young duo are not a bit more actorishly sympathetic to begin with, so that the clouds on their horizon and the traumas within would seem a bit more grounded in human likeability. Carr looks too much like a character actor trying to rev himself up into a more starry destiny and Mills as the girlfriend with the Asian background edges a bit too much into a cornered subtlety that makes her harder to like than she should be.
Both these performances have their points – they “work” in the elementary sense – but they don’t represent a triumph of casting. It was clear from Switzerland that Sarah Goodes is better at drawing out the richness of an older actor than showing a young one how it is done.
Her production as a whole has the kind of modulated gorgeousness and resplendent clutter she brought to the Highsmith/Ripley show, except here Elizabeth Gadsby has provided her with a world of ’50s floral carpets and coloured glass and ducks in illuminated formation on the wall. Goodes uses the revolve lustrously to vary the angles of the room and the effect is of a hyperreality heading in the direction of a musical, a stylisation that delights the eye but is not quite in control.
It’s a very big production for the small, semi-rounded space of the Fairfax Studio, and Goodes sometimes recesses the action a bit needlessly from the back of the stage. At other times, she uses the space as though it were a proscenium that had simply burst its boundaries.
None of which is to deny the sensuousness of this production and its consistently arresting pulsation. If we miss that sense of soaring concentration, of single faces illuminated by exact lighting, a paradoxical sense – born of cinema know-how – of the stage as a barer, understated thing, a medium for an art like chamber music, not opera, which is what we get in Tass’s productions of Baker, there is still plenty to delight in here.
Morse plays the proprietor of the B&B as if she remembered the whole reverberative history of the great roles of the American theatre, and her performance – which starts slightly big – is a thing of wonder in its cut-glass precision, its irony and its blind gracious fiddle-de-dee intensity of purpose. Morse is an actress of consummate grace and style as well and she has an ability to convey great depths of feeling without overemphasis. We should have seen her as the mature Chekhov heroines, we should have seen her as Hecuba and Cleopatra and Mary Tyrone. The woman who took the world by storm 40 years ago as the French mistress in Picnic at Hanging Rock should have played every great role, classic and modern, international or Australian, the theatre had to offer.
Fortunately we have her here in John, and everyone who cares about the art of acting should see her perform it. It will ripen as the run goes on but it was dazzling anyway.
And Jurisic as the blind friend, remembering her madness and blindness, and coming good, coming to something, is marvellous. Jurisic, who has in her time done every damn and damnable thing for Barrie Kosky and his imitators, here shows what a fabulous actor she is when she rests in comedy, in crispness, in the absolute inhabitation of a grand character.
Goodes’ production of John has its shortcomings. It’s tricksy, the couple are less loveable than they should be for their less lovely qualities, the look is a bit chocolate box, but the old dames are a thing of absolute glory. If you want to see what the theatre can do with two actresses at the zenith of their powers, do yourself a favour.
VISUAL ART Contemporary by Nature
Herring Island Gallery, Melbourne, until March 13
MUSIC Nannup Music Festival
Nannup, Western Australia, March 3-6
FESTIVAL Adelaide Fringe
Venues throughout Adelaide, until March 19
VISUAL ART AdMan: Warhol Before Pop
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until May 28
FASHION Melbourne Fashion Festival
Various venues, Melbourne, March 1-19
FESTIVAL Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras
Various venues, Sydney, until March 5
THEATRE Opus No. 7
ABC Perth Studios, until February 26
Studio Underground, Perth, March 1-4
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 24, 2017 as "Annie get your gong". Subscribe here.