When you write about theatre, there’s a couple of types of play that make your heart sink slightly even as you watch them. Ones where your opinions are just ‘it was ok’ are the worst, as you contemplate how on earth you’re going to pad a shoulder shrug into a few hundred words. The other is ones you don’t fully understand or can’t easily explain and you therefore know are going to be an absolute arse to try and write about pithily.
The Antipodes, the NT’s new play by Pulitzer-winner Annie Baker, is one of the latter. It doesn’t have a plot, beyond some people sitting in a room telling stories at a creative pitch meeting for a project that’s never defined. It’s open to interpretation in a way that makes it a great play to discuss over a glass of wine, but a more difficult one to write about. And some flat out bizarre shit happens and is left entirely unexplained.
For what it’s worth then, my take is that The Antipodes is a story about stories. About their power, their weaknesses and about their changing role in humanity. Baker’s structure, for the first half of the play at least, is very simple: one character asks a question (what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you? How did you lose your virginity? What’s your biggest regret?) and the others tell stories in response. We get to know the characters as they do this, but each story call and response also shows something about the nature of stories and why they’re important. It’s really strong and unexpectedly moving stuff that I really enjoyed. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding if you fully invest your attention. This part of the play also contains a really funny, relatable and excellently observed satire on the modern office too. And actually I would have liked more of this because it really made me laugh a lot.
Where I found the play more difficult was its second half - and I use ‘half’ rather than ‘act’ intentionally as this two hour beast has no interval (it could have handled one I think). The character who’s been asking the questions leaves, a storm descends that traps everyone else in the room and, for me, at least one shark is jumped. My interpretation on this is that it’s trying to show through the structure of the play what happens to society when stories are removed or not told for some reason. Or, more basically, to illustrate the point that it’s telling stories that keep us human and (vaguely) sane. It’s a really interesting point, but I’m just not sure it’s completely pulled off - if indeed my interpretation is even anything like correct. And certainly for me the second hour of the play dragged. It dragged a lot. I would almost go so far as to argue that the first half of the play on its own is a better piece than the whole thing as it’s written. I struggled with the two hour run time anyway.
Which isn’t to say that the production isn’t strong. Baker herself co-directs with Chloe Lamford, also on double duty as the show’s designer. It’s a strong, determined production that is very sure of itself. Lamford’s design is great fun - I loved the pile of crates of Perrier that form much of the set - and it captures that generic boardroom feeling without being boring. There’s some great, subtle use of movement in the production, and Sasha Milevic Davies’ work here is fab. There’s also some fun moments of illusion courtesy of illusion designer (the best job title) Steve Cuiffo.
The best thing about this production though, I would argue, is its pitch perfect cast. Surely this is one of the best, if not the best, ensembles in London at the moment, both in terms of the individual actors and, especially, the way they work together. That said, it seems slightly perverse to single out any of the individual performers but you know how my reviews work by now so I’m going to. Conleth Hill is front and centre as Sandy (asker of all the questions) and is utterly brilliant and endlessly watchable. I wonder how much of the enjoyment I lost in the play’s less literal second half is because he is hardly in it. Fisayo Akinade is increasingly one of my favourite actors and he’s great here too; funny, engaging and the best story teller, in the old fashioned sense, of the bunch. I also thought Arthur Darvill was on top form, which isn’t something I’ve thought from his stage performances before. He’s an enjoyably unsympathetic shit, composed mostly of corporate buzzwords, here and hits the exact right balance of awful-but-still-believable.
The Antipodes is certainly not the play for you if you want an easy, purely entertaining night at the theatre. However, if you’re willing to put in the effort and have something to chew over then it very much is for you. It’s a great meditation on the power of stories, even if that meditation could have been significantly shorter, and you’ll struggle to see better acting in London at the moment.
The Antipodes is in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until November 23rd.
I can’t tell you where I sat for this one exactly (I had significant travel woes and ended up being chucked into the audience at latecomers call - first time for everything - and not in the seat I’d paid for) but I think it was about R48 in the Gallery which costs £40. There’s nothing wrong with this seat, but it’s a lot of money to be a long way from the action.