In Annie Baker’s The Antipodes (Dorfman), the stories being spun take place in an enclosed, wood-panelled room with no access to daylight where a group of writers have been gathered under the leadership of Sandy (Conleth Hill) to come up with what might be a new Hollywood fantasy blockbuster or perhaps is a TV series. But who has a place at this table and who doesn’t?
The cast of The Antipodes. Photos by Manuel Harlan.
Dwarves, elves and trolls are out, warns Sandy. But monsters are in. Over the ensuing months—a passage of time that in Baker and Chloe Lamford’s clever production is almost magically depicted by the changing outfits of PA Sarah (Imogen Doel), the ordering of takeaways (make mine a yak butter tea) and the way a few lines of knitting are transformed into a full jumper—different kinds of monsters rear their heads. Exhaustion sets in and the real and the fantastical become blurred. What we never see, apart from the typing of Brian (Bill Milner), who is tasked with capturing every gem that falls from the writers’ lips, is anyone ever doing any writing.
Instead Sandy encourages them to mine personal stories about embarrassing moments and greatest regrets. The regulars Dave (Arthur Darvill) and Danny 1 (Matt Bardock), who view Sandy like a minor deity, come up with pat stories of matter of fact horror or sexual disgust. But when Danny 2 (Stuart McQuarrie) expresses doubt about whether autobiographical stories are misleading it is as if he has committed a thought crime.
Imogen Doel as Sarah.
There is a glorious moment when Sarah tells a Grimm-style tale involving a talking doll (a neat touch for anyone who saw Baker’s John) that is clearly untrue but of course might tell a kind of emotional truth. It neatly skewers the way that we all narrate our own lives and curate our memories to suit our own needs. Does this make them more or less truthful?
Storytelling has become a religion (Sandy likens it to a votive candle leading the way) and a money-making one too. This group of people are searching for new stories and different stories but the make-up of the people around the table includes only one woman, Eleanor—a slyly subversive presence in Sinead Matthews performance—and one person of colour, Adam (Fisayo Akinade). In a slyly competitive increasingly febrile atmosphere, both over-looked and dismissed by the others, often just in a white male gaze.
There is something interesting too about invisibility here, not least in the Kafkaesque experiences of Josh (Hadley Fraser) who never succeeds in getting his ID that grants him easy access to a room where the power structures favour some over others, and therefore lead to the same old stories being told over and over.
There are some gloriously funny moments including a Virtual Reality hook-up with what one assumes is the money man Max (Andrew Woodall) where nobody will admit the tech has gone wrong reducing the encounter to nonsense. Every single performance from this crack ensemble is just so. It is a masterclass in the generosity of ensemble acting, the quiet detail that makes characters live, every line sing.
It is a piece that lasts for two hours without an interval, but which is knitted together with such care and intricacy that I suspect that it will continue to offer up its hidden narrative moments and sphinx-like meanings for weeks to come. Towards the end, a storm rages outside as the writers still struggle to come up with a new story that must be told.
Sinead Matthews as Eleanor.
Like those ancient storytellers, those on the outside, who are battered by the wind and feeling the waters rising around their feet, may not have quite so much difficulty. Because stories take flight when need and imagination collide, and stories can be a space in which we can and must dream a new and different world.
The Antipodes runs at the National Theatre until Sat 23 Nov.