sun 08/12/2019

The Antipodes, National Theatre review - mysterious and gently momentous | reviews, news & interviews

The Antipodes, National Theatre review - mysterious and gently momentous

The Antipodes, National Theatre review - mysterious and gently momentous

Annie Baker's latest will divide opinion but reward devotees

Pass the Perrier: Conleth Hill (centre) and the cast of 'The Antipodes'Manuel Harlan

The National Theatre is forging its own special relationship with American playwright Annie Baker, having now produced three of her plays within four years, all in their smallest Dorfman space. The result has allowed a gathering acquaintance with a genuinely startling theatrical voice that mixes detailed hyperrealism with a leap into the void. Baker in this latest play more than ever invites us into a twilight zone all her own, and the theatre is a richer place for her creative shape-shifting even as her worldview gets grimmer with each premiere.

The Antipodes may represent her most divisive play yet if the walkouts one recent night are any indication. An early conversation trading sexual initiation tales gets things off to an, um, candid start, while Baker's governing style may forever be too static for some. (That said, this play has fewer longueurs than her first NT foray, the Pulitzer-winning The Flick.) And yet, for those willing to go along for the two-hour, no-interval ride, the production allows a luxury cast to honour a landscape that suggests Caryl Churchill conjoined with The Brothers Grimm, alongside copious amounts of male swagger that plunges such terrific actors as Conleth Hill, Fisayo Akinade, and Arthur Darvill into a mysterious and seemingly forbidden abyss. Fiendishly entertaining though it was, this play's Off Broadway premiere in 2017 wasn't cast to an equivalently high level, and you can feel these actors getting off on the singularity of the work at hand. (That two of the characters are called Danny so require distinguishing monikers tilts towards the realm of sci-fi.) 

The cast of 'The Antipodes' at the National TheatreDirecting her own work for the first time in England, here in conjunction with the designer Chloe Lamford, Baker posits a faceless conference table at which are seated various eager-beaver authorial aspirants who are miles removed from the writers’ room denizens of, say, the recent Emma Thompson film, Late Night. The piles of Perrier boxes towards the rear of Lamford's set make one wonder whether these creative competitors may not be consigned to this room for all eternity, which in turn renders the various menus proffered by a cheerful on-site assistant (Imogen Doel, exhibiting whiplash timing) funny and a shade eerie, as well. 

Their imaginations in overdrive, the storytellers jockey to see who can be the most outrageous, or prolix, while staying within rules set down by their overseer Sandy (a bearded Hill, in priceless form). It’s characteristic of the gently unnerving nature of Baker’s ever-shifting landscape that Sandy over time becomes more and more absent from his own event, appearing only to report on worsening illness on his (unseen) domestic front. At times, the cast roll their chairs towards one end of the table (pictured above) as if in collective thrall to some greater force, in which case one has to wonder whether Sinead Matthews’ dispensation of probiotics is going to prove much use.

The stories range from the comical (penis-headed monsters?) to the fearful, from personal reminiscence to cosmological musing alongside a creation myth here and there. Whatever their form, they exist against the backdrop of a world that may be, at best, “screwed up”, to quote Hadley Fraser’s Josh, who for whatever reason seems unable to get an identity badge. Or perhaps that same world risks depleting us altogether of stories, and their purveyors, as is implicit near the end, in which case Baker will be among the last people standing and more power to her for that.

Imaginations in overdrive, the storytellers jockey to see who can be the most outrageous, or prolix

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters