Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is a place of enormous significance to many Americans.
The site of a pivotal Civil War battle in 1863, it’s a town haunted by its past. It’s also dependent on it to a large extent. Battlefield tourism is one of Gettysburg’s economic drivers.
In Annie Baker’s ghostly drama John, an urbane Brooklyn couple, Elias and Jenny, have checked themselves into a Gettysburg bed-and-breakfast. Elias is a history nerd.
It’s a strange old place with a grim Civil War story attached to it and run by an eccentric older woman, Mertis Katherine Graven, who has filled the house with ornaments, dolls and figurines. She’s charming and gracious, and takes an unnervingly keen interest in her young guests.
Most people would be backing away about now and high-tailing it to the nearest Best Western for the night. Elias and Jenny stay put. The drama resulting from their decision is “definitely creepy”, says Craig Baldwin, the director of the Sydney premiere of John.
“People ask if it’s a drama, or a comedy, or a suspense thriller and it’s all those things,” Baldwin says. “I think of Annie Baker like a modern day Chekhov. She really invests in the minutiae of her characters. One of the joys in experiencing the story is seeing all the hidden layers revealed over the course of the play.”
The pivotal role of Mertis is played by Belinda Giblin.
“I’ve been totally enamoured of Annie Baker’s plays for ages,” Giblin says. “I just loved The Flick. But this one was really fascinating to me because it’s so challenging from an actor’s point of view. I find the role fascinating and painful – painful in its intricacy.
“And technically, it’s so demanding. Every full stop matters. Every comma, every dash. Annie insists – as does Craig – that we follow the script to the letter. I’ve never worked so prescriptively before.”
Can that seem stifling to an actor?
Giblin admits she resisted a little, at first. “I did find it strange. I did find it prescriptive. I came in with particular ideas about who this woman Mertis was. But when you honour the script to the letter, you start to see her very differently. It’s really lovely to grow into a role. I’ve done a lot of plays but I haven’t had this kind of workout before.”
Mertis has an unusual worldview, adds Giblin. “She sees everything in the house as alive. Every doll is alive, every inanimate object has a life of its own. On the surface, she’s a sweet, lovely hostess but she’s also mysterious.”
To Elias (played by James Bell) and Jenny (Shuang Hu), Mertis seems to be from another world.
“Mertis is of that generation who read books, wrote letters,” Giblin says. “Etiquette matters to her, and here are two young people always on their mobile phones. Annie works that intergenerational tension so beautifully.”
And Baker likes to have those tensions unwind at a leisurely pace. John clocks in at something like three hours. It’s like a suspense thriller in slow motion, Baldwin says.
“I think Annie is purposely using a horror movie setup and those tropes but rather than going for the cheap pay-off, she suspends you in a place of creepiness and horror. You get all the chills but you also experience a real richness as you watch these people respond to this very strange environment.”
John offers a very different experience to most contemporary naturalistic theatre, Baldwin believes.
“A lot of plays now are written to be fast and furious and witty and snappy and have you out in 90 minutes. And once you’re out, you don’t really think about it much again. This play seeps into you, like The Flick did. A lot of people told me months after that, they were still thinking about it. It gets into your bones.
“And like The Flick, John demonstrates that even the most ordinary seeming people – like the guy who sweeps the popcorn in the cinema, or the old lady who runs a B&B – have hidden depths, have lives that are epic and complex. What Annie Baker does is allow you to sit with them long enough to see all these hidden depths revealed.”
John plays at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale, September 19-October 12