The Antipodes at the National Theatre
Annie Baker’s The Antipodes is like micro-dosing stories at a corporate campfire. The American playwright – perhaps the best around today – has become known for her detailed, slow-burn narratives, with an element of theatrical endurance for the audience. This is something different.
Turning inward, it’s a production where the concept of “story” is almost the protagonist. A group of (presumably) writers meet around a conference table, to discuss… something. What, crucially, is never made clear – television show, film, advert, it doesn’t matter.
Sandy (Conleth Hill) – revered by everyone, but especially the bro-ier members of the gang – leads, the arbiter of “good” and “bad”, worthwhile and not. No phones are allowed (except for Sandy’s, of course). Every word will – should, anyway – be taken down by Brian (Andrew Woodall), the constant tapping on his laptop the only soundtrack.
When asked a question – biggest regret, worst moment – we are presented with the opportunity to construct ourselves through the stories we present. Alter perceptions of how we are seen. Can you do that on a bigger level? Change the world around you by presenting it with a new story? Or are there no new stories to tell?
There is both a timelessness to these discussions and a very specific modern social context that shimmers in and out of focus. The hyper-masculine nature, still, of so many writing rooms. What it feels like not only to be the sole representative voice – as a woman, or a person of colour – but to deal with the insinuation that your presence isn’t necessarily welcome, to see how your ideas are treated compared to those of your peers.
This blends with what is expected of you professionally regarding your personal experiences. How they are meant to be served up on a plate for the consumption of others, easily discarded. It’s a comment on trauma as a source of artistic creation, as well as an example of what it feels like to go through that in the room – chairs swivelled, faces staring expectantly.
All that might sound a bit too theoretical. A bit dry. The National Theatre’s production – co-directed by Baker and designer Chloe Lamford – is anything but. There is a reason you pack a relatively character-lite play with so many fantastic performers. It means every tiny slice of beautifully written narrative has a huge amount of impact in and of itself, not just as part of the piece’s larger thematic construction.
The table stretches out in the audience – we’re in attendance too. Boxes of Perrier, brought in ceremonially, are constructed like a throne. It gets weird in places. Like a cult. Time passes via the parade of outfits worn by Imogen Doel’s assistant Sarah – who, incidentally, is the comedic highlight of a very funny production. We’ve been there for hours and months equally, patiently waiting, like we always will, for the story that’ll unlock everything.
Photos: Manuel Harlan
The Antipodes is at the National Theatre from 21st October until 23rd November 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.