The Antipodes by Annie Baker – National Theatre (Dorfman), London
Annie Baker writes plays in which nothing and everything happens. Back at the National after last year’s triumphant John, The Antipodes is a similarly absorbing piece of theatre that makes its own rules. Set in the ‘story room’ of what we presume is a company producing ‘content.’ A group of employees sit around a conference table and tells stories. This is the creative process devised by the boss, Sandy (Conleth Hill), his trademark method for coming up with new stories. The play is in part a funny, subtle and vicious satire on the 21st century media world, a woke facade covering the same old sexism and power games and an unshakeable self-belief trumping doubt every time.
The performances, directed by Baker herself with her designer Chloe Lamford, are exceptional. She writes characters who entirely convincing and real, but unexpected. Hill, as rich, company-owning boss is brilliantly self-regarding, thin-skinned and power hungry, despite his evident belief that he is the precise opposite. Imogen Doel puts in stand-out performance as his PA Sarah, controlling the room with a flick of eyebrows. The people around the table are an expertly assembled cast, with some of the best and least showy actors playing persuasive, contrasting characters: driven (Arthur Darvill), blokey (Matt Bardock), self-possessed (Sinéad Matthews), sceptical (Fisayo Akinade), behind the curve (Hadley Fraser) and strange (Stuart McQuarrie). The latter tells a bizarre, oddly touching story about his fear of picking up chickens which spectacularly misses the collective mood. The room is supposed to be a place where people can say whatever is in their heads, but this is far from true. Stories have the power to realign or derail reality, which note-taker Brian (Bill Milner) attempts to channel through a shamanic ritual (strongly reminiscent of artist Marcus Coates). Baker’s use of the supernatural in everyday settings is exceptionally disturbing in its combination of ordinary and extraordinary.
Every character has their moment during the play with a string of low-key, weird and hilarious monologues capped by Sarah’s modern fairy tale about the witch at the end of the cul-de-sac, and Adam (Akinade)’s terrifying creation myth. The Antipodes is a true ensemble piece though, with beautifully directed scene transitions with the cast fast forward in their swivel chairs. Baker plays with persistent sense of awkwardness, extending moments of miscommunication full length, and staging a hilarious VR video call with a dodgy signal. While Baker works on many levels, failure to get the message across is a clear theme. Watching people trying to make sense of each other is entirely fascinating and The Antipodes is not only unconventional and unclassifiable, but also brilliant in a way we’ve come to expect from Baker. It doesn’t come to any conclusions, but that is definitely not the point.