Red Stitch continues its relationship with Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker, presenting the Australian premiere of her latest play
You can’t start with an Annie Baker play anywhere other than the title, and this one is particularly resonant: The Antipodes is that point on the globe that is diametrically opposite to where you happen to be, so that one could draw a line through the earth and link you both. Australia itself has traditionally been so named, though of course Europe would constitute our Antipodes. In this play, storytelling is the fastest way to connect antipodal ideas, experiences and people, but it mightn’t be the best.
Baker’s play takes place in a writers’ room, that lab of creativity that’s responsible for most of the stuff we watch on Netflix, or play on our game consoles. The playwright has a peculiar interest in the workplace, even if she can’t help subvert and distort it. Her workplaces are often homes or their equivalent, and more than casually symbolic. This one starts naturalistically, with a mentor and a handful of creatives; they’re going to tell each other stories until a grand narrative emerges, one they can then package and commodify. But soon this workplace becomes a trap, a home that exposes more than it protects.
Sandy (Jim Daly) is the nexus and modem of this writers’ room, linked by his associations to past masters of narration, but most importantly to those who fund the project. The unseen organisation’s head honchos, Victor and Jeff, function as a kind of Godot or corporate sword of Damocles dangling over the heads of all the writers. For a room of free-flowing creativity, things are pretty tense.
The first thing the writers do is tell stories, deeply personal ones about their sexual awakenings or their moral regrets. Sandy has made it clear that there’s to be no judgement about these revelations, but the mood becomes increasingly awkward as the concept of privacy is broken down. The fact that there’s a single female voice (Ngaire Dawn Fair) in the room, or one person of colour (Dushan Philips), pulsates unspoken through the work. One writer (George Lingard) is fired because he won’t fully embrace the reduction of human experience into the merely anecdotal. Another (Harvey Zielinski) isn’t even paid, a victim of a bureaucratic bungle that never gets fixed. Eventually there’s a great flood, and the writers realise they may have written themselves into the belly of the beast.
This slide into surrealism is expertly navigated, as if we’d been trained to accept the increasing strangeness. Baker is interested in storytelling in every possible iteration, from the reminiscent to the primal; with a couple of bizarre diversions, she takes her humans to the outer limits of narrative and back again. The play is an interrogation of the clichés that have built up around the act of storytelling, its overstated capacity for empathy or identification. It’s a dazzling intellectual work, and it requires fine actors to flesh it out.
Thankfully, Red Stitch is an actor-led ensemble, and director Ella Caldwell lets all nine members of the cast shine. Ben Prendergast is suitably shifty as alpha male Danny M1, and Fair is beautifully poised and knowing as Eleanor. Darcy Kent has a singular intensity as Dave, and Philips is a brilliantly watchful Adam. Daly is superb as the weary and avoidant Sandy, and Lingard is heartbreakingly good as the vulnerable Danny M2. Caldwell isn’t afraid of Baker’s infamous pauses either, ratcheting the tension with every ellipsis.
Our world is so saturated with story – even brands adopt the concept in order to sell us shit we neither want nor need – that it can seem as much an emotional and intellectual burden as a path to insight. Sandy tells his writers that they are looking to explore the monstrous, and Baker seems to be suggesting that it’s our insatiable hunger for story, that primal need to organise and simplify the chaotic nature of living, that has turned monstrous. Maybe the antipodes of all this story is endless silence, and maybe that isn’t such a bad place to be.