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