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Johnson Over Jordan

Leeds, Setember 2001

This is my impression of the play Johnson over Jordan. It is written with Patrick Stewart fans in mind. I saw the performance of J.B. Priestley's play on Friday 21st Sept. 2001 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

No one is likely to go home bored or indifferent to this production. Moved, baffled and irritated - Yes, but not indifferent.

Patrick Stewart plays the part of Robert Johnson - the central role but not the main protagonist. Johnson is a timid man who responds to events rather than leading the action. It is the other characters who drive the play along. The play is an ensemble production rather than a vehicle for a star performer. The posters outside the theatre say 'featuring' Patrick Stewart rather than 'staring'. This seems an odd choice of words until you have seen the play. If anyone is 'leading' the performance it is the director, Jude Kelly and it's her I'd like to argue with. After that I'd like a go at the designer and Priestley, if he wasn't dead.

JB Priestley wrote it as a three-act play but in this production it's performed in a single act of 95 minutes. A good decision this as intervals are always disruptive, besides giving the audience the opportunity to abscond. Another good idea was putting all 75 pages of Priestley's original text in the programme. You need to read it after the performance to try and make sense of the baffling sections. The script has been changed for this production, the original version having been set in 1939. This meant Johnson's life, at age 50, would have spanned the Great War and the Depression. Kelly has attempted to move it to the present day, deleting any mention of the war, updating the scientific and cultural references and making various other changes especially in the middle section. Changing a few words however does not make it a contemporary play. In fact the end result was to make Johnson seem a rather ridiculous figure by present day standards. Priestley's Johnson would have been 20 in 1909 and 25 at the start of the war. Kelly's Johnson would have been a teenager during the 60s! This Johnson character comes across as never having enjoyed the type of fun the 60s generation experienced (I'm one).

When I ignored the contemporary allusions and put myself in 1939 the play made more sense. It also made Stewart's appearance appropriate. With old fashioned stripped pyjamas, a greying moustache (real), a few extra strands of long white hair stuck, Bobby Charlton style, across the top of his bald head and a timid manner, Johnson looked much older than any current day 50 year old. However, for someone living in the thirties, who had survived the First World War, Johnson's appearance was believable. Stewart also managed to maintain the movements of an ageing man throughout the play even when climbing onto bar-tops and performing mock fights. The only time he deliberately dropped this act was in the first act. After Johnson dies at the start of the play he goes to the Insurance Company to claim his money. There two female examiners grill him to see if he has caused his own death by self-neglect.

JOHNSON : I've always enjoyed taking exercise. Tennis and golf -

EXAMINER : (Severely) Too many middle-aged men, sedentary workers, imagine they can improve their physical condition by rushing into games at the weekend and only succeed in straining their hearts.

JOHNSON : (Desperately) I've tried not to overdo it and every morning, if I wasn't too late, I did a few exercises in my bedroom -

At this point the EXAMINER looks shocked as she along, with the audience, think he means sex. To explain Johnson/Stewart starts doing jack jumps like a fit 20 year old and then press-ups before reverting to old man mode and slowly collapsing onto the floor. It was a bit of slapstick but beautifully done and deserved the laughter it received.

Let me get back to the beginning. When the audience is allowed into the theatre, 15 minutes before the start, Stewart is already on the stage lying on top of a bed in pyjamas with his feet towards the audience. He lies on his back perfectly still with his eyes closed and his hands by his sides. This part of the stage projected into the space left by the curved arrangement of the seats, At the back of the stage on a white brick wall is a projection of a recording of Stewart's head as he lies on his back. This Stewart twitches occasionally and makes loud breathing noises. 15 minutes is a long time to lie still and I couldn't help wondering what Patrick thought about during these periods - rehearsed his lines, dozed, listened to the people in the front rows (what did you say Sue?). Five minutes before the play started a woman climbed onto the stage and moved hesitantly towards him. I thought she was a member of the audience who was worried whether Patrick was all right. She turned out to be the actress playing his wife! Full marks for realism.

On either side of the front part of the stage and below the height of the front row of seats were two grand pianos. During some scenes in the play there was a musical accompaniment. The music wasn't memorable and I was only aware of it being intrusively loud on one occasion. Given the complex and fast movements required by the 10 actors during many scenes the music probably helped them to get their timing right. This frantic movement was one of the irritating aspects of the play. That and gimmicks such as actors appearing by punching their way through the foam brick wall at the back of the stage.

The director seemed to have lost faith the words to interest the audience during several scenes. She tried to solve this problem by running the speech and movements at breakneck speed thus giving the audience little time to grasp the text. Some of Priestley's words are pretty impenetrable, but this hurried pace deprived the audience of opportunities to get to know Johnson and Stewart of opportunities to show us what he can do. An example is a scene in the first act. In Priestley's staging a lone policeman questions Johnson about various petty misdemeanours, in Kelly's version he is questioned by a three reporters with a camera. This busy visual effect distracted your attention from both the words and Johnson. (Linda tells me the reporters were policeman, I missed that!)

The middle act, set in a night club, is about sexual longings. It wasn't obvious if we were watching a nightmare flash back of real events from Johnson's life or his unfulfilled fantasies going wrong. It turns out to be a fantasy but until that is clarified you don't know if you should feel disgust or compassion for the man. The result is you feel nothing.

The third part of the play is by far the best. It, at last, gives Stewart some decent lines and scenes the audience can relate to. Here Johnson is put back into moments from his life that have "illuminated his mind and touched his heart". His rapport with his wife was beautifully conveyed as they reminisced over their first meeting, a memorable Swiss holiday and a garden. It was saved from sentimentality by them bickering over the mess Robert had left in this garden. The section where Johnson talks to his children was superb. Stewart at his best. Here Johnson tries to say things he'd never managed while he was alive. When the children want to put things off until tomorrow I felt like shouting "That'll be too late, he'll be dead by then."

How did the other actors do? In my opinion - very well; there wasn't a weak performance amongst them. Stewart's son Daniel had some rather banal lines to say but still managed to carry them off. I think Patrick made the only mistake, towards the very end, when he gave the wrong response to a prompt by Daniel but smoothly corrected himself.

Why do stage designers like having big drops for the actors to fall off? Isn't the stage front dangerous enough? Worrying about whether someone is going to fall down a hole is quite distracting. Stewart makes this worse by creeping to the edges. A couple of times I watched him move back until his heels were hanging over a drop. He probably doesn't even realise he's doing it. (Someone suggested to me that he does it on purpose to get the audience's attention on him. He wouldn't be so naughty would he?)

I've now read the play three times and I'm starting to think there is more in it than I was aware of after having just watched the play. However, I don't think seeing this production again would have show up those extra aspects. Maybe Johnson over Jordan would work better as a TV play where the jumping around from scene to scene wouldn't seem so gimmicky. It would also enable close-up shots of Johnson and thus help the audience to get to know the central character during those difficult first two acts.

The most irritating thing about the whole play was the waste of Patrick's talents. Pick a better play next time, please!

Catherine Ellis,   September 2001

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