Physical theatre group DV8 are back with their latest performance. Playing at the National Theatre, “John” tells the story of a serial offender’s tragic life – a life that is marred by so much violence and grief that it resembles a never-ending train crash. It’s a verbatim piece in which John’s own words are the script: his recollections are declaimed by the actor-dancers as they contort themselves in a ballet of strange, expressive beauty, on a stage that is constantly revolving. At first, this story-telling mode seems confusing and affected. But once the story unfolds, the revolving stage becomes a metaphor for the unsteady, chaotic world John inhabits, and his awkward contortions a symbol of his insecure ducking and diving ways.
John hasn’t had an easy life: his father rapes two young girls in the family home and is sent to prison. Social services get involved, the mother drowns her grief in alcohol until she finally takes her own life. John goes into a tailspin: from then on, his life consists of thieving, drug-taking, homelessness, endless convictions, and ultimately prison.
The time inside proves life-changing: John kicks the drugs, substitutes them with exercise and discovers his love for men. Cue the second half set in a gay sauna. Here, its two owners give us the behind-the-scenes lowdown on running a sex venue in all its filthy detail, laced with cutting insights on men hunting for sex. Drug-taking, barebacking, STD’s and overdoses – the scattered straights in he audience (a silver-haired lady sits nearby) are spared nothing. And yet with all the sexual action, the steam room of a gay sauna is an emotional Antarctica in which nobody dare break the code of silence. It is here, of all places, that John chooses to find a boyfriend. “I have so much love left in me to give”, he says rather tragically.
What’s the effect of this sad portrayal on the overwhelmingly gay audience? My boyfriend found it thought-provoking. To have what Vauxhall’s dirty little secrets aired by two bona-fide gays (and not a homophobic preacher) gives the criticism of the hedonistic gay lifestyle compelling weight, even if it is weakened by the consideration that the sauna, like so many other gay businesses, profit from the behaviour they publicly condemn.
John is looking for love in all the wrong places. But then, who is there to guide him? The sauna may well provide HIV-testing, condoms and safe-sex leaflets in their venues. But they still haven’t tackled that emotional frigidity in their sweatboxes by breaking that code of silence. Maybe businesses like these need to actively encourage social interaction. Maybe we need to see a play like John performed right there at Chariots Vauxhall. It would certainly get the dudes in towels talking.
In the meantime, John, like the rest of us, will continue to stumble along in his quest for love. As a typical gay man, he has no role models to encourage and guide him. Society has barely got used to the idea of same-sex marriage. But John is resilient. And like many of us, after many wearying trials and errors, he may yet find happiness.