I loved The Antipodes so much I almost don’t want to write about it – because writing about it is putting an imperfect wrapping of words around something complex and magical, clumsily packaging it in a form that shows my own preoccupations, my own worldview. Anything I can say feels crude.
I feel justified in starting this review with a bout of existential writerly angst because that’s a feeling that patterns through the play, too, that sense of the troubled relationship between words and actual experience. It’s so astute on the endless struggle to use words to contain great unknowns like time, of the inadequacy of the ways we talk about about our lives, and of the agony of going to the jar marked ‘new stories’ and finding it empty. And because The Antipodes is by Annie Baker, who’s a stonecold genius, it’s also about workplace powerplays and gender and time and dreams, underscored by something deep and distantly transcendental, like the gentle rumble of trains passing overhead.
It all unfolds in a studiedly mundane conference centre-ish space, with only the huge circular motifs of Chloe Lamford’s design hinting at the play’s looping, non-linear structure. A scruffy, nervy gaggle of writers sit round a large table, being goaded or pressured into coming up with the concept for the follow up to big hit ‘Heathens’, which is probably a telly series, or a video game, or maybe a film. The presiding force is Sandy, who speaks with the soft conviction of a self-appointed genius, and whose every action is a silent powerplay-in-disguise. When he stops listening to a writer’s pitch and looks down at his texts, the whole room seems to chill by a few degrees. Still, the lunches are delicious.
These writers are challenged with naff prompts to tell stories about when they lost their virginity, or about their biggest regret. Danny M2 tells a gawky, beautiful story about failing to adequately protect some hens – it falls heavily, like an egg dropped on a stone floor. What’s needed is something punchier, tropier; an affair, a missed career opportunity. Not a weird incident with some chickens. But Danny argues that any anecdote he tells is just one inaccurate sampling of his life, and points to the flaws of the whole exercise. He leaves, and is never allowed to return.
Just as she did in The Flick, Baker uses an absence of ‘things happening’ to shift our focus to the precise mechanics of how an environment operates. She shows an intimate knowledge of what it feels like to spend way too much time in a place that’s aggressively trying to mould you into its vaguely cursed image, creating a workplace dynamic that’s painfully real (in theatre, this is surprisingly rare!).
As Danny’s experience shows, this room is a bubble, a charmed circle. Criticise its unspoken rules and you place yourself outside safety – you’ve left the chalked ring that spells are performed inside. The more experienced writers speak of Alejandra, a former writers’ room member who becomes the mythical ‘bad employee’, the one whose sins are dredged up as an eternal warning. But all she actually did was eat seemingly strange foods, and (still worse) challenge the ‘say what you like’ ethos of a macho circle where offensiveness is seen as a natural by-product of creativity, like methane rising off a field of grazing cows.
Sinead Matthews is haunting as Eleanor, the only woman writer invited to sit round this table; she uses her slightly child-like quirks to forcibly disarm the men around her, to neutralise the sexuality that the room’s wonderfully dressed, wonderfully passive-aggressive secretary (Imogen Doel) is obliged to deploy. As the circle’s edges blur and a storm brews outside, Eleanor whispers “Alejandra!”. It sounds like an incantation.
This group don’t come up with new stories, not really. Instead, they dredge up monsters; grotesque, spliced together ancient narratives, like one of those ‘mermaids’ made by Victorian showmen out of the fossils of monkeys and great fish. Looking for stories isn’t a linear hunt-and-capture. It’s a spiral, that revisits the same old points; one that’s a bit like Eleanor’s beautiful description of time as something that circles round and round, the same feelings popping up and vanishing at the same familiar points.
But if the big stories are always the same – the huge wide loops – there’s still hope. As you spiral in tighter and tighter on the densely coiled specifics, they become original.
The Antipodes is astonishing because it’s both sweepingly mythical and very, very precise. It demonstrates exactly why some specific stories never get told; the factories that brew up the stories we watch aren’t able to find them, because doing so would dig away at the ground they stand on. It shows a heavily-gendered industry of insecure, disposable workers who find comfort in self-affirming narratives; the hero who slays the dragons, the teenage nerd who gets to sleep with the cheerleader, the hard worker who gets the success he deserves. The biggest existential threats here aren’t monsters; they’re anyone who isn’t a white man, or anyone who hasn’t internalised the merciless WASP value system of striving => success, or anyone who asks to get paid on time, or anyone who dares to yell beyond the “cone of silence” these writers demand, to protect themselves from criticism.
Designer Chloe Lamford and Annie Baker co-direct a production where time seems to stand still; instead of sharp blackouts, there are fluid sequences of movement that blur scenes together. Lamford’s involvement made me expect more tricks, more of the haunted-house magic that filled Baker’s John at the Dorfman last year. Instead, this staging puts all the focus on an incredible collection of performances, each one immaculately realised and real. And that realism makes the supernatural, when it does arrive, feel even more unsettling.
There are more new stories left, I think. And they’ll arrive with the dark and yawning destruction of writers’ rooms like this. And in hands as subtle and expert as Baker’s, ones that are able to let transcendental horrors and stifled frustrations roar through a tunnel of tightly coiled, immaculately observed moments.
The Antipodes is on at the National Theatre until 23rd November. More info and tickets here.