Tag Archives: Stuart McQuarrie

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   


Sweat – Donmar Warehouse

Sweat - Donmar Warehouse

The decline in manufacturing industries had a far-reaching and indelible effect on the UK and US throughout the later years of the twentieth-century, characterised by the growth of services and office work in place of skilled physical and manual labour integral to product development. But too often debates and discussions about this shift in output have been too theoretical, confined to economists, political commentators and historians eager to explain the rise and fall of Trade Unions, the challenges facing Britain and America on the world stage or the growing disenfranchisement of huge numbers of working-class voters in areas of significant industrial decline. What we so rarely see amidst the economic models and pie charts are the experiences of the people living through it, the complete powerlessness of workers whose jobs are relocated abroad, the factory that generations of their family have been loyal to turning against them, and the area’s absolute dependence on that one workplace.

Lynn Nottage’s Pullitzer Prize-winning play Sweat comes to London for the first time, examining the personal and local consequences of a firm’s strategic decision to change the way it operates and revealing the void it leaves behind. Based on a series of interviews with workers in Pennsylvania and book-ending the George W. Bush administration, Sweat is the story of a group of factory workers whose lives are shaped by a series of incendiary decisions taken by the plant owners with little regard for the individual consequences. Two families whose matriarchs and sons are good friends compete for a promotion that will take one of them off the factory floor and into the remote management sphere, but just as the dust is settling big changes put everyone at risk, pitting new supervisor Cynthia against best friend Tracey. Divided loyalties upset what no one recognised as a delicate balance and soon friendships are tested, bitterness and recrimination explode, and with racial tensions heightened, someone gets hurt.

Nottage’s stunning play sets-up a sense of inevitability from the start, a Greek tragedy waiting to happen in which a brief prologue reveals two young men – Chris and Jason – newly released from prison for a crime we know will eventually be unveiled. It is 2008 and already there is a hint of opportunities lost and hopelessness about what they now have to look forward to. Nottage then cuts back to 2000 and the story begins its semi-tragic course and, while we have some perspective on the ending, Nottage’s skill is to embed the audience so deeply in the town and the lives of its people, to make you care so much for their pride and essential innocence, that you almost forget what is coming, revelling in their warmth and humanity so that you long for a happier ending than any of them can ever have.

There are clear comparisons with Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and, while the driving tragedy is more dispersed and external in Sweat, the idea of working communities threatened by outsiders, worries about immigration and the nature of unstoppable change are very similar. There is an interesting strand about loyalty and broken trust which mirrors Miller’s concern with honour and duty in defined communities, most obviously explored within the friendship group but also strongly referenced in the worker-employer relationship that breaks down so badly in the second half of the play.

We are told several times that the plant sustains whole families, employing husbands and wives as well as their children. Generations of townsfolk have worked there, it is intrinsically linked to the town’s professional and personal history, the source of their identity. Nottage also reveals how exclusive entrance to this club has been with workers only ever hired if recommended by an existing employee, and through this the scale of betrayal becomes clear as devoted locals discover their dedication is not reciprocated, that the factory management was only loyal as long as they were getting a good deal – when the economic circumstances change they manipulate this long-service to force a change in the business.

The somewhat poisonous effect of this workplace then begins to infect and toxify the other relationships in the play. From the start the audience know it is a dangerous place to work, the cause of Stan’s limp and the reason he now manages the bar in which much of the action takes place. A racial dimension slowly seeps in which we know from the prologue will lead to Jason pursing white supremacist activities off-stage but begins subtly with former friends turning against each other and looking for weapons. This is later compounded by the presence of Oscar, a barman of Colombian origin with no loyalty to the town who wants to work at the factory to earn more money and reinforcing local fears that cheaper workers will undercut them.

But Sweat is ultimately a female story and at its heart is the growing distance between friends Cynthia and Tracey who have shared more than 25-years of ups and downs working together on the factory floor. Through them, Nottage examines all kinds of labour politics, not least the struggle between tradition and aspiration at the individual and community level. Set around three birthdays held in the bar – two protagonists and their underwritten alcoholic friend Jessie – over time we see a happy harmonious group ripped apart by jealousy and competition, and despite their growing distance, the birthday is a useful device to credibly bring the characters together. The second birthday is incredibly awkward while the third descends into bitter argument as external pressures reshape how these women see each other.

When Cynthia wins the promotion, Nottage is able to tap into wider discussion about the fractious relationship between manual workers and administrative management, a class divide that explores the declining power of the Trade Unions to protect their members, as well as the individual cost to Cynthia of becoming ‘other’ – promotion from the floor is a badge of honour which becomes a millstone. The “us and them” rhetoric woven through the play (also present in the wider context about fears of immigration) is a familiar one seen in British cultural responses to strike action as diverse as Made in Dagenham, Billy Elliot and even Carry On at Your Convenience when Sid James’s foreman character insists he cannot join the company board because he’s “a worker”. What Nottage does so well is to make all of this painfully real for the characters, emphasising how desperately people want to better themselves but how easily they are accused of being class traitors when they do.

Clare Perkins is full of joy as the play opens, Cynthia is having a wonderful time in a job she loves, drinking with her friends, her life is settled and content. Or so it appears on the outside, somewhere Cynthia wants more and as she transitions to a management role Perkins shows something switches off inside her, an almost imperceptible shift to greater responsibility. Her complex homelife with a dope-addict husband offers a few wistful moments on the passing of the years, but Perkins’s Cynthia is a warm, caring woman who has done her best to raise her son well while refusing to be taken advantage of.

In the new role Perkins suggest both the pride it gives her to be chosen for management after more than 25-years of work, but also the sorrow as it costs her the stability of her friendships. You see how exasperated Cynthia becomes with Tracey’s refusal to be happy for her, and the confusion of their sudden enmity. Cynthia believes she is still the same person fighting for her community from the inside, but Perkins subtly suggests a change in her persona, the concealing of vital information until the last possible moment and a stronger hint of self-preservation than we saw earlier in the show. “Was it worth it” is the question that haunts her, but Nottage is too skilled a writer to reveal the answer, instead the inevitability of Sweat shows us that all paths ultimately lead to the same destination.

Martha Plimpton’s Tracey is more comfortable in herself as the play begins but reveals greater insecurities as the story unfolds. A widow thanks to the factory, Tracey is ballsy, stubborn and willing to say exactly what she thinks regardless of the cost, she is no one’s fool and hates the idea of being hoodwinked especially by her best friend. Plimpton also draws out Tracey’s greater love for heritage and foolish belief that her family’s decades of service will be rewarded.

When she loses out on the promotion, Plimpton reveals how thin the layer of decency has always been and Tracey descends into bitterness, finding reasons to blame her own lack of agency on Cynthia’s failure to manage and unveiling a surprising bigotry, a low-blow that feeds into the race and immigration subtheme that has much to say about modern political divisions that have subsequently shaped US and British government. Yet we retain a shred of feeling for both women, Nottage’s writing and these strong leading performances show cause and effect so clearly, helping the audience to understand how little either could do to prevent what happens to them.

There are meaningful performances of the secondary male characters including Osy Ikhile as Cynthia’s son Chris, a decent young man caught up in events that cost him the bright future he once had and dreams of escaping the town that no one else can. Patrick Gibson is a little too decent to entirely convince as Jason with some of the inflections and movements a touch over-studied, but he does exude a menace in the 2008 scenes which works much better. Stuart McQuarrie is both counsellor and friend as stalwart barman Stan with his own connection to the factory that ties his greater knowledge of the customers into the importance of the plant to the town, while Sebastian Viveros as the more mercenary outsider Oscar finds himself at the eye of a troubling storm.

Nottage’s world is richly detailed and full of pain, pain for the limited opportunities left by industrial decline, pain for the communities and individuals destroyed by firms who place profit above staff satisfaction, and pain for the crippling effect it has had right across the economic and political domain, creating rents in the social fabric that have turned people against one another. Sweat is a beautiful piece of writing about small-town American but it could just as easily have been set in the UK, the effects are the same and the life Nottage so vividly describes is as real today as it was in 2008. Our industrial past is pulling against some other kind of future, and there’s little any of us can really do to stop it.

Sweat is at the Donmar Warehouse until 26 January with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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