Wednesday 30 October 2019

Theatre Review: The Antipodes (National Theatre, Dorfman)

The National Theatre's Dorfman has become the de facto British home to Annie Baker's plays over the last couple of years. Co-directed by the author with designer Chloe Lamford, The Antipodes becomes the third of Baker's works to premiere there following Sam Gold's production of the Pulitzer-awarded The Flick in 2016 and James MacDonald's staging of John last year. I missed John but quite admired The Flick, which, across a generous (for some, much too generous) three hour running time, highlights changing patterns of cinema presentation and consumption via the interactions of three employees in a small Massachusetts movie-house, as they mop floors, chat about films, and make ill-advised passes at one another. 

The Antipodes continues The Flick's concern with workplace dynamics - up to a point. The play presents a group of characters involved in a series of vaguely defined creative brainstorming sessions overseen by the slippery Sandy (Conleth Hill) in a corporate room that Lamford's design renders in all its swirly carpeted hideousness. Among the participants (who are played as an Anglo American crew here) are Arthur Darvill's Dave and Matt Bardock's Danny, for whom this project isn't their first rodeo with Sandy, and newbies Eleanor (Sinead Matthews), Adam (Fisayo Akinade), Josh (Hadley Fraser) and another (very different) Danny (Stuart McQuarrie) - plus note-taker Brian (Bill Milner)  and Sandy's endlessly sunshiney secretary Sarah (Imogen Doel).

Sandy's "method" is to get the group to tell personal stories, on topics ranging from loss of virginity to their biggest regret. As such, the dynamics of the group are again the focus - watch out for Darvill's Dave sidling up to Matthews's Eleanor to gleefully point out a phone-related faux pas she's just made - and suggestions of exploitation and inequality percolate within the interactions; witness the unceremonious removal of a participant who dares to raise questions about the whole premise of the endeavour by articulating the ways that personal "revelation" can mislead. 

But Baker twists the play into stranger, more surreal territory this time around. This is a piece concerned not just with storytelling and communication but with time, which gets not only discussed in the dialogue but dramatically distorted, for protagonists and audience alike. As always in Lamford's clever designs, details such as a circular light fixture and that swirly carpet function as expressions of the themes, and the thrust-staged production makes us complicit as observers around the conference table, as the tone shifts from relatable, awkward-funny revelation to a night-time sequence that digs into mythic and ritualistic aspects of story-telling. ("This is a sacred space," Sandy tells the group at the beginning, with his suspicious earnestness.)

The weirdness here, like Baker's mumblecore-influenced naturalism itself, can feel self-concious and calculated. But at their best her plays achieve effects that other writers don't get near. Though much shorter than The Flick, The Antipodes challenges and, with its increasingly apocalyptic undertone, unsettles at times. Yet watching the production I felt drawn into a state of relaxed, quite benign immersion that's somehow different from my experience at any other drama: a combined, overlapping sensation of boredom and rapture. 

This has to do with the particular mood that Baker creates, the absence of conventional dramatic tension, and, here, with the qualities that the actors bring "to the table." The company is much more assured than the cast of The Flick was, filling out the somewhat sketchy characters with details that, along with a marvellous late flourish which literally alters our perspective on them, variously complement or contradict their story-telling.

As Dave, Darvill pops his mustard coloured socks up on the table in a way that encapsulates male confidence and entitlement. Burly Matt Bardock pipes up with an excruciatingly graphic, finally moralising STD story, while Hadley Fraser plays Josh as buzzing and animated when he gets philosophical and touchingly apologetic when asking why, umm, he hasn't been paid for three months. 

Fisayo Akinade delivers the most challenging speech - a bizarre, elaborate creation myth for stories - beautifully, while Stuart McQuarrie makes a reminiscence involving a chicken a centrepiece of the show. Conleth Hill suggests a ruthless streak under Sandy's geniality, and Sinead Matthews, always a glory, delights as Eleanor recounts her first sexual experience, curls up on a pile of boxes to sleep, and takes to knitting - a detail that provides a supreme punchline. As the assistants, Bill Milner moves from unassuming note-taker to disturbing participant while Imogen Doel's Sarah loses not an ounce of her perkiness as she recounts a childhood experience that's apparently straight out of a Gothic fairytale. A primary pleasure of the evening is watching these actors interact.

Some bits of physical business don't feel fluid enough yet and Baker's writing has a random air at times, the relay of narratives sometimes smacking of research that feels half-digested. But the conclusion - which juxtaposes one character's loss of faith with another's reconnection with their first foray into creativity - blindsides you with its understated beauty, delivering a memorable, humane ending to this enigmatic exploration of the multiple stories we tell.

The Antipodes is booking at the National Theatre until 23 November.

Photos: Manuel Harlan. 

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