Writer: Annie Baker
Directors: Annie Baker and Chloe Lamford
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Stories make us human. The making up and retelling of stories helps us understand the world and even how the planet was created. But what if there were no stories left to tell. Annie Baker’s new play examines the attempts of modern day storytellers to come up with new stories.
A group of eight people – seven men and only one woman – sit round an oval table trying to come up with a new story that, presumably, will be turned into a Hollywood film. But they struggle with writer’s block, and synopses and treatments seem very far away. Their boss Sandy, speaking in clichés and self-help jargon, encourages his team to tell their own true stories for inspiration. We hear how they lost their virginity or what they think is their greatest regret.
Sandy believes that in these stories is the basis of a new story, and so he orders his employees to put away their phones and to keep talking to each other even when he can’t make it to the office. Some have better stories than others. Danny M2 tells parochial stories reminiscent of Rose’s St Olaf stories in The Golden Girls, while new team member Josh seems to have no stories at all.
Of course, storytelling is a major theme running through Baker’s work, seen, until this play, most clearly in John, her previous show at the National. John and 2016’s The Flick both ran for over three hours, but The Antipodes is snappy in comparison at just two hours long without an interval. But it’s still a long slog at times, and this search for a new story does not make a good story.
The title suggest that this play is about Australia, but the programme notes that The Antipodes are imagined lands on the other side of the world that have haunted writers since the Greeks. These lands may be full of monsters or, as opposites of those in the Northern Hemisphere, people with feet for heads. The characters in the play definitely want monsters in their story and Adam even relates a long story about people with feet for heads, but frankly his monologue is as bland as someone else’s dream.
As various characters advocate there are a limited number of narratives available, and Baker’s play is based on one of them – the quest narrative. It’s a shame that it has problems leaving port though. More interesting than the search for a story are the glimmers of other plots such as will Josh ever be paid or what has happened to Danny M2 or how can Sarah change her dresses so quickly. These moments of humour ensure that the journey is not too rough.
Even though nothing much happened in The Flick and John, Baker made complex and detailed characters that enthralled us, but in The Antipodes these characters are sketchily drawn and it’s only Eleanor that keeps our interest. It’s a credit to the acting skills of the whole cast that they are able to flesh out these hollow shells. As Eleanor, Sinéad Matthews is excellent as a newcomer to the team, watching the rituals of the others with reservation and patience. As Danny M1, Matt Bardock is funny with his single story but has little else to do, while Conleth Hill is suitably silly in displaying the self-delusion and the privileged position of Sandy. Imogen Doel, so good in the National’s The Tell-Tale Heart, is brilliant as the kooky PA.
Storytelling also the runs through the work of British theatre company Forced Entertainment; they too sit at tables telling stories to each other and the audience. You can’t help but wish that they were involved in this project to bring some warmth and life to this sterile evening. The Antipodes perhaps takes its task too seriously and that by overthinking the story there is no story at all.
Runs until 23 November 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan