BWW Review: THE ANTIPODES, National Theatre
Is this a great time to tell stories, shedding light in dark times? Or is it an impossible task? That's the loose premise of Annie Baker's wilfully elusive new piece, featuring the brainstorming session from hell - or possibly about hell, or in hell. Immaculately directed by Baker herself and designer Chloe Lamford, it's monstrously clever: a philosophical Fright Night.
A group is gathered around a conference room table, here for an unnamed job; from context, something like the writers' room of a new prestige TV show. Their head honcho, Sandy, is coming off a successful project called Heathens, for which he and his creatives drew on their own lives, so he wants this group to do the same: tell stories, turn truth into fiction, and grapple with something "monstrous" (but no dwarves, elves or trolls allowed).
There is so much at play here. One surface element is Baker's deliciously merciless skewering of the dynamics of such creative endeavours - including the fact that there is, of course, just one woman in the room and one person of colour, and that a macho thuggishness is the prevailing vibe. All are coerced, shamed or bullied into sharing intimate details like how they lost their virginity, while - under the amusingly mimed "cone of silence" - one man essentially boasts about an affair and the graphic details of his STD.
Sandy, who calls this a "sacred", non-PC space, tells a story about someone once reporting him to HR for an unsafe workplace environment - a tale in which he clearly casts himself as the victim, egged on by his bros (reports of the Friends writers' room and subsequent lawsuit show that Baker's fiction here is dismally true to life). He also talks fondly of his mentor, a titan who he freely admits was a drunk, a bigot and a sexist - all excusable, indicates Sandy, because of his masterful understanding of story.
The play also wanders into the surreal or fantastical. The group seems trapped in this liminal space, forever bound to its swirly orange carpet and bizarrely enormous pyramid of Perrier boxes. Sandy doesn't allow mobiles, so they're cut off from the outside world, other than knowing that there's a semi-apocalyptic storm gathering. We drift into territory like mantras and blood sacrifice, contemporary corporate culture blurring into ancient ritual.
Baker also writes about and fascinatingly experiments with the passing of time. Plays like John and in particular The Flick have a particular rhythm and slow naturalistic unfolding that the audience has to succumb to; here, the same applies, but time also seems to skip like a broken record, as indicated by the group suddenly eating noodles or jumping into a new discussion.
Eleanor - in a theory later stolen by Dave - talks about time going downwards in spirals, suggesting we return to our starting point. Time certainly feels deconstructed here - partly an increasingly agonising mundanity, as the days pass with no sense of purpose or progress, partly a psychological state or slippery idea, dreamlike or nightmarish.
Dave maintains that this is Sandy's genius plan: if they shun sleep and home and just keep telling stories, they'll have a breakthrough. Whether or not that's true, it's certainly monstrous behaviour from a leader, who also abandons them with a hilarious series of outlandish excuses via assistant Sarah.
As Sandy, Conleth Hill is a softly-spoken, self-important menace, the "nice" boss who nevertheless manipulates and leeches off others, and is hypocritically glued to his phone. In a farcical VR conference call with a godlike big boss that constantly cuts out, he shows, too, that he is just scared middle management, answering to someone else whose aims he (quite literally, due to the technical difficulties) doesn't understand.
In a drum-tight ensemble, Arthur Darvill demonstrates Dave's hero-worship loyalty and alpha-male entitlement, carelessly planting his yellow socked-feet on the table. Fisayo Akinade brings a spellbinding quality to Adam's storytelling; Matt Bardock relishes Danny M1's swaggering candour; Stuart McQuarrie is endearing as the intimidated Danny M2; Bill Milner keeps us guessing about their oddball note-taker; and Hadley Fraser brings a nervy edge to Josh, the only one not supplied with an electronic ID tag - and so, in some sense, not granted a real place here.
But it's the two women who prove particularly memorable. Sinéad Matthews subtly indicates her character's discomfort at the male behaviour throughout, while attempting to establish her own identity and territory via everything from snacks to childhood stories. And Imogen Doel just about walks off with the show as the brilliantly vivid Sarah: wearer of multiple multicoloured jumpsuits, overeager taker of lunch orders, cagey protector of Sandy, and artless teller of the night's most indelible tale (once more in a Baker play, creepy dolls are involved).
The thrust staging effectively moors us in this strange place alongside them, as does Tom Gibbons' quietly insistent sound design and Natasha Chivers' lighting, dominated by the overhead light that mirrors the reflective table. That in turn echoes the title, which refers to the myth of a people and place on the opposite side of the Earth to us - an upside-down mirror through which we can explore the unknown, or perhaps revealing our darker selves.
It's a play that, through an intricate intertwining of subject and form, asks big questions about the purpose of stories, who gets to tell them, and whether they can or should have a real-world impact. Never mentioned, but lurking, is the increasing blurring in our "post-truth" society - the way that objectivity is now muddied, communication weaponised, and facts filtered through a kind of faith.
That it addresses these ideas with such witty, idiosyncratic strangeness, and such innate theatricality, is testament to Baker's gifts. Although less emotionally devastating than some of her other work, with the distancing of its experimentation, it's still spry, surprising, very funny, and likely to haunt the subconscious far more effectively than anything else this Halloween.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan