Review: Antipodes, National Theatre

There is an older play called Antipodes: a late renaissance farce about a man obsessed with imagined worlds on the other side of the Earth, who is restored to sanity in the end through an elaborate play-within-a-play narrative device. Annie Baker’s brilliant new play captures this spirit of the otherworldly, but takes it much further. Here everyone is caught up in the mad haze of imaginative confusion, and there is no hope of a cure in sight.

Antipodes is a story about stories, or the absence thereof. Its premise is a creative brainstorming session for an unspecified product, which drags on for weeks and months as storms set in outside. The workers of the office go round and again in their hopeless scenarios, relating their first sexual experiences or the worst and best thing that has ever happened to them as they seek imaginative fuel for their storytelling fire. 

As a place where men and women work alongside each other in a common productive purpose, an office should be the optimum space for creation. And what is a story if not the most fundamental creation that humans are ever able to undertake. The continual failure to achieve their product therefore represents the functional failure of a space that so many in the audience will spend much of their time in. With its bright lights and swirly carpets (designed by Chloe Lamford), all this particular office seems to do is suppress emotions and prevent natural social interaction. Instead of a hub of imagination, it becomes a theatre of the absurd.

The exterior world is always absent, while inside things become ever weirder and more primal, before language itself begins to break down. The play intricately tears ideas apart to a level where everything is devoid of any significant meaning. But rather than simply descending into chaos, Baker keeps us hooked through the script’s moments of strange familiarity. These are found in throwaway comments of how “fucked up everything is right now”, or the tropes of casual sexism that single female attendee (Sinead Matthews) impassively takes in as she sits at the boardroom table.

With no clear plot development, an uninterrupted two-hour running time, and essentially only one scene, stellar performances are needed to carry the action. Antipodes certainly has these, led by a wonderful turn from Conleth Hill as the brash American boss Sandy. He expertly treads a minutely fine line between the dramatically eccentric and the unexpectedly emotive. Credit is also due to Stuart McQuarrie as Danny and Imogen Deol as secretary Sarah. They both tell particularly memorable personal stories which might in another production be merely funny, but in their capable hands really get under your skin with just the slightest hint of uncertainty and desperation.

Antipodes is a wasteland of failed creation, filled with anecdotal colour and richly-developed humour that is never able to resonate beyond the immediate. It suggests that we live in a world so fascinated with knowing everything and harnessing what we know into some industrial means of production that we have lost the means to create organically. With this the third production in as many years that Annie Baker has staged at the National, her status as one of the most innovative playwrights of today is assured. She brilliantly represents the impossibility of earnest artistic production today: any attempt to make anything new will inevitably end up in an erratic postmodern funk.

Antipodes is playing at the National Theatre until 23 November. For more information and tickets, visit the National Theatre website.