Yes, the world is still awful. But on the plus side, the National Theatre is currently averaging one new Annie Baker play per year, and that’s certainly something to cling on for.
‘The Antipodes’ – which has its UK premiere in a production co-directed by Baker herself and designer Chloe Lamford – is utterly, gloriously out there and will doubtless horrify some people. It is by some measure the US playwright’s most overtly surreal work to date. That’s not to say it feels any stranger than last year’s haunting epic ‘John’. But it does shed the facade of realism that has defined Baker’s previous work.
Around an enormous oval table, with a very expensive-looking light fixture above it, sit eight people. They’re a mix of Brits and Americans plus an Irish PA. And they are… well, what are they doing?
All that can be said for sure is they’re locked in an endless brainstorming session, though exactly what it’s for is never clear. As the play begins they’re idly tossing about names of mythical monsters; as it wears on, Conleth Hill’s bearish, indefinably menacing boss Sandy encourages them to share stories about losing their virginity, or their greatest failure.
Although he looks increasingly frazzled, Sandy seems to be the only one who can actually leave the room, aside from his PA Sarah (the reliably funny Imogen Doel), who in one of many droll visual gags sports a drastically different outfit every time she pops in. There is a clear echo of Beckett or even Pinter, but the language is completely different: everybody talks languidly, naturalistically; the tone is often dark, but wilfully shifts from absurd to banal to excruciating to very silly.
The constant thread running through is that they’re all desperately trying to come up with a decent story. Why exactly?
The cop-out thing to say is that Baker has written a story about the importance of stories, but I feel like that’s the sort of pat cliché reviewers use to explain away challenging work. The truth is that beneath its laconic surface, ‘The Antipodes’ is endlessly shifting and complex, and it’s about an enormous number of things. It’s about the way men behave in packs in the workplace, to coerce and isolate women (Sinéad Matthews is a fragile delight as Eleanor, the only female member of the pitching team). And it’s about things far beyond that: the strangeness of the world that exists beyond our ability to describe it, the horror of the inexplicable (the title, never spoken, is clearly not a reference to Australia but to the world beyond our knowledge).
The deliberately central irony of ‘The Antipodes’ is that while its characters are obsessed with telling stories, it remains entirely unclear what is happening here. Is this real? Are they trying to write a TV show? Start a religious cult? Are they dead? Divine? Living in a post-apocalyptic world? Dunno. But it is made up of endless smaller tales, some creepy, some bathetic, some profound, some upsetting, many all of them at once. Stuart McQuarrie is haunting as Danny M2, whose superficially feeble yarn about some chickens is ineffably disturbing; conversely, Doel’s Sarah rattles off a macabre, impossible story from her childhood with a breezy enthusiasm that renders it hilarious.
If ‘The Antipodes’ is concerned with any one thing, I suppose it’s the porous, malleable, subjective nature of reality, how what we call ‘real’ is simply a reflection of what we believe. But, you know, it’s also a good laugh. And it’s blessed with a truly remarkable cast: Arthur Darvill is great as the arrogant but strangely damaged Dave; Matt Bardock is very entertaining as crassly blokey Danny M1 (there are two Danny Ms, hence the numbering); Fisayo Akinade provides a thoughtful, sensitive note as Adam; although always on stage, Hadley Fraser has a near-cameo as the outsiderish Josh, a man whose interjections are largely limited to his weird perception of time.
Baker and Lamford direct beautifully, creating a sort of dreamy deadpan or strangely filtered reality. There are a couple of supernatural moments that would seem to push it into magical realism, but it’s never quite explicit. It is the world reflected back at us, but all skew-whiff.
Ultimately ‘The Antipodes’ is an existential drama about how objective reality is a sham, that is also a pretty funny comedy about some dudes in a pitching meeting. In between those poles, it crams in whole worlds.