Tag Archives: Annie Baker

The Antipodes – National Theatre

The Antipodes - National Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

Annie Baker is a major force in modern American theatre whose work captures the sense of a nation battling with its identity, history and loss of purpose. Her characters are always people who, whether they realise it or not, dream of more, of being something or someone else but are economically and emotionally trapped in the perpetual cycle of their own existence from which they are unlikely to break free. The way in which Baker deconstructs the modern American psyche is every bit as accomplished and vital as David Mamet’s skewering of masculinity in the 1980s, but with her own cerebral approach that distinctly uses language to create tension between the intellectual and instinctual in her plays, while drawing on the the underlying tones of religion and mysticism that run through Western societies where faith and science sit side-by-side.

Her latest play The Antipodes is at least an hour shorter than her previous works in the UK – The Flick and John – and focuses on the essential nature of storytelling set in a kind of writers’ room where a small group of people share personal anecdotes over a three month period. What they are all doing there, what the outcome is supposed to be and who they are working for isn’t the point – and it’s not something Baker spends any time trying to explain -because for a play in which plot is the key driver, there really isn’t one. Instead it is these various interactions that become the point as the team explore what it means to tell a story, where stories come from and why they need to feel authentic.

That is not to say that Baker’s scenario doesn’t create a number of questions that have subtle points to make about the ways in which we appropriate individual stories and often commercialise them with little benefit to the storyteller – note here the character of Josh who months into the project still hasn’t received his ID card and most importantly hasn’t been paid despite being an equal contributor to the group – is he being used? Clearly, the team are working for a big commercial organisation represented in Chloe Lamford’s design as a large corporate and soulless boardroom – no pictures or inspiration adorning the wood paneling  and just a stockpile of Perrier water in the corner. There is nothing about this room that inspires imagination or creativity, yet the occasional references to boss Max suggest the scale of this business endeavour and whether it is TV show development, a film project or video game design, there is a feel of exploitation, of something being taken from these people without them realising, dressed up as an exclusive opportunity.

One of The Antipodes most interesting aspects is how Baker controls the changing nature of the stories being told and while these may seem random there is a deliberation behind what people share and when that builds a sense of isolation and even mania around the room as the play unfolds. So it begins with questions posed by Sandy – a management representative who controls the pace and nature of the conversation without sharing himself – using icebreakers that encourage the group to reveal intimate details such as how they lost their virginity and biggest regrets. Over time these become clearly fantastical, taking on the sci-fi bent that they have been gathered to create and running alongside this are discussions about the nature of time, as well as the monsters and creatures that will be included in the final story. The point is that eventually one of them will tell the right story, that the influence of the collective unloading will be something they can sell.

What is so interesting about Baker’s play is not only the intensity of the pressure as eight people remain trapped in a room, but that it takes them all back to the beginning of life itself. Those strands of mysticism and Christianity emerge in elaborate evocation of the Adam and Eve story where the act of creation becomes the ultimate tale, and one which is mirrored by the simplicity of the childhood stories that Eleanor tells. Baker has things to say about how we over-complicate our stories, we elaborate, add dramatic emphasis to make them seem more important and include complex subplots to sustain interest, but what we miss is the youthful innocence of a child’s story with its straightforward detail and rapid resolution, while our obsession with monsters and fear of the dark stems from the biblical twosome who started it all, that all stories will eventually take us back to the origins of life.

The pacing of The Antipodes is still finding its rhythm ahead of Wednesday’s press night but co-directed by Baker and Lamford, it’s almost there with only a couple of energy sags later in the production as the characters themselves tire of the process they’re being subjected to. Like Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, Baker employs no clear scene breaks and instead changes in time happen with just a flicker from the actors, the lights alter perhaps or the group simultaneously move their chairs creating an unbroken flow to the narrative that helps to create the growing displacement that affects the characters as the show unfolds.

There is also a strong sense of the apocalypse outside that increasingly draws Sandy away to attend to diseases and extreme weather conditions that give the Boardroom a bunker feel, as though storytelling has become our refuge against the outside world. That contrast is well created by Baker and Lamford, adding a fear of the external and a growing displacement from it that adds to the safe-space concept within the room. The reality seems fantastical, that, outside the stories being created in the room, the world is upside down and only here is truth.

While we hear often deeply personal tales from each of the  members of the group, Baker determinedly doesn’t distract us with too much characterisation and although there is enough distinction between them, it is their collective function as a a hive mind that holistically  deteriorates and struggles that determines the ebb and flow of the narrative. Their stories and  their ability to conjure these experiences is the point and it is notable that while petty competition  and momentary tensions exist between them, these are not the focus, so there are no dramatic breakdowns for individuals or even particularly separate trajectories. This can be a strange and puzzling  experience at times but as with the scene in which the team take part in an interrupted futuristic-looking conference call with Max, Baker is asking us to consider how we form the collective stories we tell as groups, societies and nations. And by taking the voices or experiences of others into the very concept of identity, how we express and communicate that through language to embed these ideas and reinforce them between generations.

Of the eight characters, Sinead Matthews’s Eleanor is purposefully the only woman in the creating set, and Baker uses the character quite carefully to explore both her different mode of storytelling and the small moments of sexism endemic in these scenarios. Matthews is clearly separated from the others not by distance but in bringing her own food each day as well as the expression of her anecdotes. You see in the opening scene that the men describe their first sexual experience as a technical or circumstantial occurrence – who, what, and how – but Eleanor never shares these details only the feeling, the strong impression of it which Matthews delivers with the warmth the memory holds for her character. Later, she subtly conveys her astonished indignation when she sees Dave take credit for an idea she had expressed in an earlier scene. Matthews has a way of drawing the audience to her character, part of the group but always noticeable and intriguingly fragile.

Arthur Darville’s Dave is the most competitive and is the team member trying to keep everyone else on track when Sandy is absent. He’s outraged when he catches Eleanor texting after phones were banned and takes a high-handed approach to chastising her. Similarly, he frequently emphasises how lucky they all are to be chosen and how hard he has worked to get into this room. Dave’s behaviour stems from a need to ensure that no one else jeopardises his big chance, but Darville also gives him a hint of neurotic frustration, an arrogance about his creative abilities and a need to be seen as the unofficial second that adds additional layers to a play where movement and dramatic development are deliberately stifled.

Among the remaining cast, Conleth Hill is a force as boss Sandy, the only one allowed to stay in contact with the outside world and who openly displays his interest or contempt for what he’s hearing with a steely gaze. Imogen Doel as PA Sarah becomes a marker of time passing with constantly changing outfits and is the pleasant face of the corporate machine who becomes increasingly drawn into the creative process, while Fisayo Akinade has a great monologue in the final part of the show. Completing the cast is Matt Bardock as Danny M1 who has more of a no-nonsense approach than the rest and tells a wince-inducing and graphic story that will make you recoil in your seat, while Bill Milner as note-taker Brian performs a strange ritual that could be better explored in the text. Stuart McQuarrie as Danny M2 whose squeamish reluctance opens him up to criticism adds a depth to the dynamic, as does Hadley Fraser as new recruit Josh obsessed with stories that play with time but finds himself unable to fully benefit from the corporate machine determined to use him.

Annie Baker’s plays can be an acquired taste and in spite of its much shorter running time this is one of her most challenging so far. At times you do wonder if perhaps she has bitten off more than she can chew in an attempt to explore the universality of storytelling, while the descent into a kind of collective insanity may seem strange in lieu of a plot. But this is a writer with lots to say and always with her work, you find your thoughts returning to it again and again once the curtain comes down. We are a culture built on storytelling, the myths we believe about ourselves and our national history, the way the news is presented to us and the tales we daily pay to consume on TV and in the cinema. But we never stop to ask ourselves who is telling these stories and why – this is the brilliance of The Antipodes, Baker’s decision to jettison the plot leaves us to wonder what madness is filling the void?

The Antipodes is at the National Theatre until 23 November with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


John – National Theatre

John, National Theatre

2017 was a great year for new writing and in the next few months, judging panels will have the unenviable task of trying to decide whether Oslo, Ink or The Ferryman deserves the accolade of best new play, knowing that whoever they chose, will rob the other two. But now three weeks into January, the first new play of 2018 is opening at the National Theatre. Following the success of The Flick which had it’s UK premiere in the Dorfman in 2016, Annie Baker’s latest play, intriguingly called John and first performed in New York in 2015, makes its London debut in the same space. Baker’s work is a subtle examination of modern ideas of self-worth, often bringing characters together at times of transition, trapping them in a contained, often claustrophobic space, as they try to determine a way forward.

Troubled young couple, Jenny and Elias, arrive at a local bed and breakfast for a few days as they pause their trip to visit some local Civil War sites. It’s the week after Thanksgiving and along with the decorations, the strange little house, run by host Mertis, is filled with dolls and ephemera that clutter every available surface. During their stay the couple get to know more about the attentive owner, and, as their own relationship begins to strain, confide in her hoping to discover what their future should hold.

No one should go to a Baker play expecting plots stuffed with drama and activity, instead she writes slow-burn stories that centre almost entirely on character and theme. The National Theatre’s production may have so far managed to shave 10 minutes off the run-time but John is a monster show of 3 hours and 20 minutes with two intervals. Yet, there is considerable engagement with the world Baker creates, and you feel yourself pulled into their discussions about love and purpose. Baker has a particular ear for realistic dialogue and while she out Pinters Pinter with elaborately long pauses and deliberate stillness, her writing genuinely reflects the small moments of awkwardness or tension between sentences that accurately reflect the circularity and stilted nature of real conversation.

Despite its title, this is a play about women and for much of the time it is the female characters whose perspectives we hear and sympathise with. But they are complicated and, as we discover in the plot, not always entirely moral people whose bad behaviour is called into question. Purposefully the three women are nothing alike, representing very different kinds of living as small-town collides with the big city, work and home, glamour and comfort crash into one another while still finding a semblance of emotional common ground between them.

And it is the power of three that seems to fill Baker’s work, as many of John’s scenes are an ongoing dialogue between three people, often those with a close relationship and an alien third. Initially it is the central characters, Jenny, Elias and Mertis, but increasingly as the central couple’s stability begins to fracture we see other trios deliberately and, sometimes unexpectedly united – one of Baker’s skills is to suggest that there are always three people even when you only see two.

For instance, early on, the audience discovers why Jenny and Elias’s relationship is so precarious and all of their conversations, including muffled offstage arguments, have the presence of a third party hanging between them. Even in the occasional spots of happiness, the reality of their predicament intrudes upon them, borne out by other aspects of Baker’s writing, not only the mysterious absence of Mertis’s husband who she claims is in the house yet unwell, but also the continual references to the universe, to spirituality, ghosts and God. Never fully elucidated or woven successfully into the text, these themes nonetheless reiterate the idea of the constant third in any scenario, someone who silently watches.

The idea of being observed is raised several times, and in a particularly neat duologue between Mertis and Elias both recall feeling observed as a child, concluding that this presence was guiding and protecting them. Jenny feels differently, and in a separate conversation triggered by seeing the same toy in Mertis’s house, has a more unnerving and judgemental interaction with a doll she claimed used to make bad things happen to her which she would have to make amends for. Baker uses this to reinforce her idea about individual conscience and self-worth, showing that Jenny in particular requires external validation for her actions even if those are projected into a lifeless figurine.

For the second time in as many weeks the private home turned into a hotel becomes an important setting, used to create a tone of uncertainty and underscore the tension to be drawn from the arrival of strangers into someone’s else’s environment. From Pinter’s seaside boarding house in last week’s The Birthday Party designed by the Quay Brothers, to this sinister establishment in Gettysburg America, the displacement of characters is reinforced by inserting them into a world far from their own. For all its domestic warmth and cosy appeal, Chloe Lamford’s detailed set suggests at best a quirky owner, and a worst something considerably more sinister beneath the chintz and endlessly staring figures that make Brooklynites Jenny and Elias seem out of place.

Lamford has created a strange little world of domestic harmony crossed with eccentricity, which fills the centre of the room with sofas and a bizarre self-playing piano, while at one end is an enormous window that looks out onto the beautifully coloured sunsets, lit by Peter Mumford, that offer freedom and a slightly obsessive idea of the natural beauty of the universe which is a frequent refrain in the text. At the opposite end of the room is “Paris”, Mertis’s arrangement of bistro tables for her guests to use.

Director James Macdonald allows all of these elements to coexist in a jumbled harmony that reflects the cluttered set and emotions of the characters. Nothing is rushed which, to the despair of some audience members, means things move very slowly across the evening, giving the protagonists time to think, to sit and to reflect which is so true to life but so rarely permitted on stage for fear of losing the audience’s attention. It’s such a shame, however, that too many long conversations happen at the far sides of the stage meaning a good proportion of the Dorfman audience cannot see anything.

Having a proscenium arch show always feels like such a waste in this most flexible of theatres, and while necessary for this one, poor blocking often puts all the characters out of sight of anyone seated at the sides. You are warned about restricted views of course, but the scenes could be positioned a little better and given that a lot of people moved seats in the interval, there are clear benefits in rethinking a couple of those extreme side locations before press night (although of course critics will be seated where they can see best).

Mertis the B&B owner is a fascinating creation, at once cosy and welcoming, thoughtful and kind to her clearly cold and fractious guest, but with an underlying sinister tone that would allow the character to be interpreted in several different ways and leaves plenty of unanswered questions about who she is. Marylouise Burke decides to make her a semi-sweet all-American mother-figure, fussing about the home and plying her guests with biscuits.

Yet she is a mass of contradictions, refusing to turn on the heating at night despite a shivering Jenny having to sleep in the living room. Mertis also makes dismissive references to some of her rooms having a mind of their own, and Burke continually makes it seem that Mertis is hiding facts if not outright lying to cover up something unsavoury. Even the strange absence of her second husband is dismissed so suspiciously by Burke that the audience begins to wonder if there is something much stranger happening in this house, but the joy of Burke’s sweetness and light approach is that the audience is never quite sure if something much more terrifying is about to occur.

Anneika Rose plays Jenny as a modern woman keen to make amends but unwilling to continually prostrate herself for past indiscretions. Its clear she has made the trip to Gettysburg to placate Elias but uses the time to try to discover her future. Rose makes Jenny smart and friendly, fascinated by ideas about the enormity of the world that come through conversations with Mertis and her friend Genevieve. We see her become increasingly dissatisfied with Elias, and, despite her conscious attempts to be close to him, she actively seeks time away from him, their room and their joint activities, a separation that Rose charts convincingly.

Elias is a more neurotic character than his girlfriend, and Tom Mothersdale allows much of that to stem from an idea of moral superiority, of being the wronged man. Fascinated by the Civil War, and carrying the burden of an unconventional hippy Jewish childhood, it isn’t until much later in the play that Elias is given the chance to reveal his own inner turmoil, and Mothersdale takes the opportunity to balance the scales with an important and well delivered discussion with his hostess about whether to persist with or end his relationship, tempering his unyielding exterior with moments of doubt and sympathy.

John has its faults and some of the themes aren’t as clearly elucidated as they need to be to draw all of the strands together satisfactorily, but Baker’s plays are so rich with detail and full of insight into the way people really behave that they draw you into their world for the duration. With plenty of new plays yet to come in 2018, Baker has set the tone with an intriguing examination of the fear of being watched and judged that prevents people from living the life they should.

John is at the National Theatre until 3 March and tickets start at £15. The National Theatre also offers £20 tickets for the week ahead in its Friday Rush scheme.


The Flick – National Theatre

The Flick - National Theatre

Film and theatre far from rival arts, have long gone hand-in-hand. It’s not just the movement of actors and directors between the two genres that allows audiences to get closer to the stars they love, but both forms look to the other for story inspiration. Countless movies are about the theatre, from the sublime All About Eve to the recent Birdman, films love to focus on the demands and dramas of the stage. And in turn, occasionally the theatre looks right back, not least in a stage adaptation of the quintessential film about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard.

The latest play to pay tribute to its artistic cousin is The Flick which is showing at the National Theatre until mid-June. Set in a run-down single screen cinema in small-town America, The Flick is at once a tiny yet epic story of three cinema employees whose lives tangle and collide in the minutes between showings. Over the course of a few weeks, we meet multi-tasking cinema staff members Andy and newbie Avery whose job it is to clear the room of litter, man the box office and sell tickets. It is a permanent job for 35 year old Andy who seeks to impart his picture-house wisdom to his 20 year old sidekick who’s taken a summer job between College terms. But this equanimity is soon disturbed by Rose the projectionist whose presence complicates their burgeoning friendship.

It’s safe to say that this is a play where nothing happens; there is no plot as such, no major events and no revelations, but at the same time The Flick is a character driven piece that gets to the heart of human interaction, suburban life and a particular form of modern self-loathing that each character exhibits at various points. There is an ebb and flow to conversation that is brilliantly realised in Annie Baker’s text which seems to perfectly capture the social awkwardness of colleagues in semi-manual jobs with little in common. The dialogue is surprisingly sparse, almost staccato at times, and you may have heard much about the substantial pauses, yet it manages to convey so much about these people and their likely future.

It is a play full of contrasts and self-contradictions, being both small and substantial, about nothing at all and everything at the same time, utterly hopeless and yet still hopeful. It is a testament to Baker’s creation of character that in the course of more than 3 hours you become so involved in this world-in-microcosm that these vast contradictions can co-exist and, though vastly different and steeped in their own unique set of problems and views, you have invested considerably in each individual to actually care what happens to them next.

Leading the cast is Matthew Maher as Sam (transferring from its original off-Broadway run) whose relationship with Avery is really the heart of the piece. Initially Sam is in the more senior role who at 35 is both the longest serving member of the team, and the person nominated to induct the new recruit outlining the particular techniques for sweeping the auditorium or cleaning the drinks machines. Sam is not an intellectual and his early reticence hides a warm nature and difficult family situation that slowly emerges as the two men converse, but we learn enough to know that this cinema reflects the confines of Sam’s life and whether he knows it or not, this is all he will ever be – something which in Maher’s hands creates enormous pathos. And it is right that these are never explored in detail, partly because the writing and Maher’s engaging performance mean they don’t need to be, but also because they reflect the snippets of information you only ever learn about your colleagues – no one ever really has a heart-to-heart about their broken lives during their coffee break except in films. At work we only ever know what people let us see.

Jaygann Ayeh as Avery is his opposite and equal in many ways (a play of fascinating contradictions as I explained above). Unlike the others Avery is working at the  cinema to pay his way through College, fulfilling a temporary and eventually forgotten role in his life which gives an interesting dynamic to the relationship with the permanent staff. And Avery is incredibly, almost geekishly, knowledgeable about film which leads to some of The Flick’s best scenes as the characters play 6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon or discuss the technical projection of film itself. As in so many of this play’s discussion it is about something else entirely beneath the surface hinting at a gentle rivalry between the protagonists, a warm and trusting friendship, as well as later the feeling of betrayal that sits between them. Ayeh perfectly mixes Avery’s apparent innocence with a growing desire to defy Sam until he eventually outgrows his tutelage – and it’s all so subtle you hardly know it’s happening.

Coming between them is projectionist Rose (Louise Krause – another veteran of the original production) who appears appropriately like a thorn between the two men after their friendship has been established. Sam secretly yearns for her and spreads rumours that she’s a lesbian, while Rose is attracted to Avery. Krause is as seemingly dysfunctional as the rest, having awkward conversations with both men while using her grungy appearance and surly attitude as a barrier. Again we never really learn why but we don’t need to as so much loneliness and emptiness is conveyed in every carefully constructed moment. And through her also we get a sense of the petty jealousies that compound working life, where being taught to use the projector implies a hierarchy among the staff that reflects their romantic entanglements and is a source of much of the tension.

David Zinn’s incredible set is a perfect run down shabby cinema where you can see, and practically feel, the stained seats. Only later as it changes hands do we see it transformed, by Jane Cox’s excellent lighting design, into a nicer-looking but soulless chain cinema. The only gripe about this production is the decision to perform it in a proscenium arch arrangement – the Dorfman is the National Theatre’s most flexible space, can be arranged in a number of configurations and itself has seating on three sides of the auditorium. Yet throughout the play characters sit at the stage’s extremes and are entirely invisible to at least one third of the audience. You are advised about restricted views in advance but it seems a shame to have so many when the theatre space is transformable – so perhaps having an apron at the front so the actors are not obscured by the walls or changing the blocking to have them sit more centrally would help.

A true love of film is reflected throughout The Flick not just with Avery’s encyclopaedic knowledge of movies but in the affection for the technical look and experience of watching, something Baker clearly feels is under threat from the proliferation of digital film-making and the strangle-hold of corporate cinema chains. A culture of meaningless consumption is what she shows us and one that loses a variety of skills right from the work of the director and cinematography, through to the no longer necessary projectionist. Great plays have been transformed on screen while NT Live and its bevy of equivalents have taken live theatre into cinemas around the world. They borrow from each other, share artists and technicians and reflect, absorb and repurpose each other’s innovations. It was once believed that the advent of cinema would kill the theatre but more than 100 years on its clear the two have become integral to one another. The Flick is about so many things, but essentially it is a theatrical love letter to film.

The Flick is at the National Theatre until 15 June and tickets start at £15, it is also part of the National’s Friday Rush initiative offering tickets for £20.


%d bloggers like this: