The AntipodesPosted on: 05 November 2019 by Laurence Green
A journey to the centre of America's dark heart is provided by Annie Baker in her latest play The Antipodes (Dorfman Theatre at the National) which is also directed by Baker, together with Chloe Lamford. Laurence Green reviews.
Set in a windowless and soulless corporate room, the drama focuses on a group of people gathered around a table, here for an unnamed job or assignment, possibly a new reality TV show. Their head honcho, Sandy, is coming off a successful project called Heathens, for which he and his creative drew on their own lives, so he wants this group to do the same: tell stories, turn truth into fiction and grapple with something "monstrous". Their phones are switched off and the group, who seem trapped in this liminal space with an enormous pyramid of Perrier bottles stacked nearby, embark on telling, categorising and theorising their stories. The Talk ranges from their first sexual experiences to memories of their biggest fears, to meditations on the nature of time. But, as Sandy gradually withdraws from their meetings and a violent storm rages outside, it becomes clear that their quest has reached a terminal stage.
Baker, who created a splash with her last play, John, also staged by the National, never quite reaches the same heights here, as an initially fascinating idea runs out of narrative steam and in the end this elusive play just peters out. In providing a confection of casual conversation, awkwardly delivered anecdotes and concerted stabs at storytelling, Baker shows us a world that is both familiar and fantastical. The atmosphere is uneasy and makes you feel you're trapped in them with these people, having to listen to endless, aimless stories.
Conleth Hill's grey-bearded, airily serene Sandy, is a softly-spoken, self-important individual, the "understanding" boss who nevertheless manipulates and leeches off others, and is hypocritically glued to his phone. There is good support from Bill Milner as a put-upon junior, transcribing desultory thoughts aloud, Stuart McQuarrie as a rueful chicken-tender, exiled for embroidering the truth, Sinead Matthews as a part-Icelandic fabulist who finds evidence of monstrosity in her own family, and Imogen Doel as an anxious-to-please PA who has a story of her own to share.
Baker here gives us an America from the sidelines, askance, a country of lost souls, of people scraping by, groping for certainties, and the evening leaves you wondering where humanity is at and the value of fictional escapism at a time when the world is falling apart.
Antipodes plays at the Dorfman Theatre until Saturday 23 November.
Box office: 020 7452 3000.
Image: Manuel Harlan.
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