Paul T Davies reviews The Antipodes, a play by Annie Baker, now playing at the National Theatre London.
30 October 2019
Once upon a time, there was a playwright called Annie Baker, who enjoyed huge success at London’s National Theatre with The Flick and John. A playwright wary of convention, her plays are not to everyone’s taste, but her dialogue, her ideas and the staging of her stories brought her great acclaim. And it came to pass that the same home of her successes birthed a new production of her 2017 play, The Antipodes, a play in which telling stories is the story itself, the creation of new myths the impetus for exploring the disintegrating world and climate.
In a conference room the “Benevolent Boss” Sandy, (Conleth Hill), has gathered together his specially chosen tribe to tell stories to each other, of their childhood, experiences and to create something new to follow their worldwide hit, The Heathens. There is no pressure to meet a deadline- not at first- and this appears to be a writer’s room. Danny M1, (Matt Bardock), and Dave, (Arthur Darvill), have worked for Sandy before and are eager to please, their stories being explicit and trauma passed off for comic effect. Danny M2, (the underused Stuart McQuarrie), finds it difficult to share, tells a story about chickens, and is quietly removed from the process. Adam, (Fisayo Akinade), and Eleanor, (Sinead Matthews), appear to have been employed to fill a diversity quota as their stories repeatedly fail to be written down by the scribe Brian, (Bill Milner). The passing of time is subtly shown by the changing costumes of the secretary Sarah, (excellent Imogen Doel), and the group spend four months failing to come up with new stories.
It makes for a frustrating night at the theatre. With Baker, one always has to dig beneath the surface, to listen to the text, to understand the unspoken. But whereas The Flick and John were over three hours long, and left me wanting more, this is a two-hour interval less experience that spends much of that time dramatically static. Disaster is occurring outside, storms rage as the group are trapped in the room, Sandy faces trauma after offstage trauma, environmental disaster is indicated by the pile of boxes of bottled water, there is no running, natural, water, and they eat constant take away food from further afield, piling up the plastic containers. I kept waiting for a lift to the action, especially when Brian tries to create his own myth using blood and a wolf cape, but even then the play shies away from landing on Lord of the Flies Island. Sandy is their God, and they are lost without him, and there’s a funny scene when they try to communicate with the higher Gods, the money men who rule them all, and the satellite link keeps breaking.
However, there is no doubt that Baker can write, it’s a play teeming with ideas and originality, and here she co-directs with Chloe Lamford. I found the direction as static as the action, and for much of the play I became very familiar with the back of Arthur Darvill’s head, as the characters move little around Lamford’s excellent set. It’s one of those plays that feels as if it takes place inside a glass bowl, much to admire and look at, but, for me, lacking a strong connection with the audience.
Until 23 November 2019