The American Civil War is a watershed era of US history, spawning social and cultural changes that are still unfurling to this day. As a source of story and myth, the soil is exceedingly fertile; the battles of Nashville, of Shiloh and Fort Sumter, and of course, Gettysburg.

The spectre of Gettysburg is a potent force in the MTC’s latest production, John. Written by Pultizer Prize-winner Annie Baker and directed by the celebrated Sarah Goodes, it is a Gothic insight into love and relationships, histories and hauntings. Performer Johnny Carr sheds light on what makes this acclaimed production tick.
“When I was auditioning, I was actually reading Alain de Botton’s book, The Course of Love,” Carr says. “He talks about the intricacies of relationships, and how romanticism has ruined partnerships for us because we have this ideal version of how life plays out, of happily-ever-after. In the third scene of the play there’s an exact example of what he’s talking about, when you’re eating a meal with your partner after the romance has faded away, and you can hear them eating and they sound like bovine just crunching away, and you wonder, ‘Why the fuck am I with this person?’ ”
He laughs. “This puzzlement of being with someone you’re so intimate with, and at times so incredibly distant from. So for me – although there’s a lot more to the play – my way in was this relationship between [my character] Elias and Jenny. Why people stay together, the hell they’re prepared to go through to stay together, the terror of leaving something to be by yourself. So because I was reading this, it felt like elements had been lifted right from it.”
Although the play is American and steeped in US history, it is by no means a necessity to be well-versed in the resonance the Civil War has on North American culture today. Indeed, it is foremost a story of the strange complexities of human relationships – with each other, and their surrounds. Holding any historical insight is simply an added bonus.
“I think Annie Baker is a writer who quite openly says how research is a part of her process. It’s so rich with historical detail, and they all have some symbolic impact to the piece. It’s one of those things where the buffs will love that they get certain bits, but it’s not like you need required reading. Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, and in a way that represents the ultimate stand-off between this couple, this few days they spend at this bed-and-breakfast. My character has been with his partner for three years, except for a time a few weeks ago when they split up briefly. I see him as this really scared guy who, in a lot of ways, offence is his best defence. Lashing out is a defensive mechanism. He’s at a crossroads, and that’s where we meet him. It’s not pretty, but it’s sure fun to play.”
While John is not a ghost story per se, you don’t need to peer too far beneath the page to find hauntings. It is a tense, somewhat eerie production, where shadows of the past creep out to colour shapes of the present.
“There’s a real element of mystery to the piece, and being set in Gettysburg, there’s references to the ghosts of the past, of the Civil War. I don’t think I’ve seen or read a play that has this kind of ghost-story element to it for a while now. In a way, we’ve been focusing on not highlighting any of that. I’ve refrained from picking up the bedsheets and poking two holes in them, you know? We’ve been playing it for truth. This is our final day in rehearsal before going into the theatre, and we have fantastic designers working on it. I think that’s where the magic will happen. I think if anything, the eeriness requires us to ignore it, and the suggestion of it is something that the audience will hopefully be attuned to. That something is not quite right in the space.”
By Adam Norris

Melbourne Theatre Company’s John is now running at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio until Saturday March 25. Tickets via mtc.com.au.