Theatre review: The Antipodes
Written by Annie Baker, co-directed by Annie Baker and Chloe Lamford, produced by the National Theatre
There were very few things I felt certain about, upon exiting the National Theatre’s Dorfman venue after seeing Annie Baker’s The Antipodes. One thing was, at least, a pretty safe bet (if I dared to draw any conclusions from what I’d just experienced at all): Baker is not exactly an advocate for the contemporary corporate culture and our obsession with the latter as a model for success and an object of aspiration, to say the least. Which might, actually, seem somewhat counter-intuitive, since an obscure corporate meeting room is the exact setting of the play in question (which Baker has also co-directed with Chloe Lamford, so we can assume that everything seen on stage is genuinely intentional).
Advertised broadly as a play about telling stories, The Antipodes has its characters gathered around a large conference table, under a spiralling neon light fixture. We don’t ever find out exactly what they are working on — there are some hints towards a great media project, perhaps a TV show of some sort, or a large marketing campaign — but we know that they are there to come up with the greatest story ever told. One that would, ideally, be suitable to be communicated beyond words and would alter and transcend our current perception of what stories and storytelling are all about. In order to tackle this daring task, a team of seven — led by Sandy (Conleth Hill), who appears to be a creative industry mogul of some sort — lock themselves up in the room, with little else than what seems to be a considerably oversized supply of Perrier water for the crowd and the task at hand. They are encouraged to switch their phones off, turn their creativity on, and to exchange personal stories to get the ideas in the room flowing. Brian, Sandy’s clumsily awkward, nerdy assistant (embodied perfectly by Bill Milner) is there to relentlessly take notes, Sarah, the office secretary (wonderful Imogen Doel, who brings just the right combination of naivety and determination to jump at any opportunity of being noticed by the team to her character), to order lunches and cater to their every need. What could possibly go wrong?
It is only that… Many things do go wrong. Or simply feel wrong somehow. For a start, there is something oddly curious about the way in which the room appears to mimic the world outside. The gender representation is oddly skewed: there is only one woman at the table, Elanor (Sinéad Matthews), who seems to stick out for a number of other reasons, too. In the corporate mundanity of thai-takeaway lunches, obsession with themes of (sometimes borderline toxic) masculinity (yes, sex is brought up quite a lot — curiously as one of the introductory themes) and cool, distant attitudes, her preference towards apple slices with nut butters, gentleness and the tendency to show compassion appear oddly misplaced. Her male companions are an odd mix, too: Dave, the wannabe corporate ladder climber clearly set to please Sandy (brilliant Arthur Darvill), Josh, the keen philosopher, borderline obsessed with the concept of time (Hadley Fraser), Danny M1, your proper manly man in the room (Matt Bardock), Danny M2, the obviously uncomfortable gentle soul with imposter syndrome (excellent Stuart McQuarrie) and the only other minority representative aside for Elanor, Adam (Fisayo Akinade). As they sit around the table going through a range of different topics and ideas, we observe their personalities unravel before us, and witness odd interpersonal dynamics shape and show.
Things start to deviate from the plan pretty quickly. Sandy soon stops practising what he preaches, when his initial lamentations about the sanctity of their common space are replaced by his growing obsession with the outside world (reaching him through the phone that others are not allowed to have, with this adding an odd feeling of external circumstances slowly entering the room — perhaps to imply the impossibility to have a truly independent and detached creative process), and his tendency to phase out or simply walk out of the room during the most intimate or honest moments of his colleagues’ storytelling. In a similar manner, the majority of the group soon starts showing contempt for expressing vulnerability (and the group’s member who most openly does so, which leads to direct consequences), and a clear sense of rivalry emerges between the more practical and pragmatic and more philosophical approaches to life and to storytelling. The sense of tension in the room grows, as the protagonists — contrary to their mission — start running out of stories, their creativity clearly suffering under the burden of long working hours (despite the initial promise of no overtime) and the implied pressure from executives whom we, nor they, never actually get to see. By the time Sandy stops showing up to meetings, and a storm starts raging outside, the room is filled with actual, tangible feeling of staleness and despair. Somehow, actually — everything seems to go wrong.
With some characters’ stories claimed to be true but simply ringing bizarre, and unexpected ritualistic elements brought into the meeting space, challenging the rationality of what we are seeing, the overarching meaning and the message of the play feel awkwardly elusive. The (co-)directors’ choice to have the lights in the auditorium turned on so that the actors can see the audience and the audience can see the actors, but at the same time observe other audience members’ reactions to what is happening on stage, also raises the question if perhaps we are simply being oblivious to the fact that the storytelling beyond words had somehow already begun. What if it is not meant to be found in the result of the work done in the meeting room at all, but in the fact that everyone present observes each other while participating in this unusual theatrical experience?
Perhaps I have taken that last assumption a bit far, but it would, quite frankly, not be a surprise. To say that Baker’s writing plays with one’s mind is not an exaggeration. And ultimately, the audience is left with the challenging task of interpreting what it all means. Are we watching a metaphorical depiction of an author’s (autobiographical?) writer’s blockage, in trying to write a new play? Is Baker communicating her disenchantment with the way we communicate: our tendency towards not listening, towards dismissing the genuine and the mundane in favour of the aspirational, with messages filtered through numerous filters of social media intentionally glamorising the daily lives that we lead? Or is this an exploration at a higher level, concerned with how the stories we tell have lost their genuine, humane value under the pressure of cheap marketing disguised as truths (and user testimonies) and the fake news that surround us, without being equipped with the proper tools to distinguish between the real and the purposefully fabricated? Perhaps it is Baker’s intention to openly confront us with the eerie easiness with which all our stories somehow escalate into something violent and messy, with the idea of war seemingly unavoidably lurking at their core? Could the meeting room simply be a scaled model of the world we live in and its ruthless (capitalist, corporate) dynamics, with each of the characters representing one of its segments? Or is it something even more elusive overall: one big metaphor for deities sitting on the Olympus or — just as plausibly — the authors of religious texts who devised that one big story with many variations that many of us go by today, different religious narratives shaping and influencing individual lives to the tiniest of details?
It is difficult to tell. In all honesty, it could as well be all, or none of the above. But it doesn’t really matter. While it lacks the relatability, humor and the warmth of Baker’s John, which has preceded it at the National Theatre, and despite the fact that — being a story about stories — it seems that its biggest story is the one left to be read between the lines, The Antipodes is an incredibly mind-boggling experience, certainly not without its own merits. It encourages us to think about layers and layers of what we think we know, while having us trying to decipher the true nature of the story that Baker is (or might be) trying to tell. It might be exactly that (creative) process that all of us in the theatre, not just the actors on stage, were gathered for in the first place. And since it comes with a cast that brings it to life not with a spark but with a proper flame, there is no good excuse to miss it. It is great (and highly entertaining) theatre.
Seen at the National Theatre on October 30, 2019