FringeReview UK 2019
Co-directed by dramatist Annie Baker and Chloe Lamford who designs the set and costumes (Associate Anna Yates), it’s lit by Natasha Chivers with Sound Design by Tom Gibbons. Movement Direction’s by Sasha Milavic Davies, Illusion Design by Steve Cuiffo with Charmian Hoare as Voice and Dialect Coach.
To say place is a character in Annie Baker’s work is absurdly bland. It’s so potent actors leave the stage and the audience watch it for moments instead.
The Antipodes is Baker’s third play at the NT Dorfman: she’s hypnotic and addictive: the most original U.S. dramatist to emerge in the past decade. The Flick features a Massachusetts cinema that dwarfs yet amplifies its characters. John’s oppressive décor as a Gettysburg boarding-house features spooky dolls on walls and a piano playing in the dark. Both unfold over more than three hours.
Her 2017 The Antipodes then looks different. It’s two hours straight through for a start. And co-directors Baker and Chloe Lamford who designs the Dorfman set have opted for a stretched oval board table with chairs almost floating in corporate anonymity over an orange-patterned floor. Above it an echo of its shape in white briefly generates a mogul’s voice captured on a dodgy line: Max. There’s a single sliding panelled door backstage through which Conleth Hill‘s convener Sandy and assistant Imogen Doel‘s Sarah apparate.
There’s enough Baker-time – time’s one of the topics – to suggest Sandy is mogul Max’s deputy and Max is a Godot who puts in an appearance. Well virtually.
They’re here to brainstorm tales to inspire Max and Sandy, to come up with a stupendous storyline: the movies, even politics, a rich Hollywood cult. ‘Incredibly lucky’ to have made it thus far, they’re not the first and may get dismissed. Baker’s inscribing her own myth more explicitly than before.
Sandy exudes a creased paternalism, a favourite uncle lassitude. They start with their first sexual experiences and move through monster-darkening territory. Bar Doel, Sinéad Matthews’ Eleanor is strikingly the only woman on the set, part-Finnish Brit who mixes with other Brits and Americans. Eleanor’s strikingly different in approach too. The other five brain-stormers and note-taker Brian (Bill Milner’s moment comes late) exude shades of reconstruction.
There’s Dave’s sub-Alpha-male preppiness: Arthur Darvill, legs brattishly against walls. He worked with Sandy and lets you know it with loud servility. Matt Bardock’s truculent Danny M1 serves as his more ebullient British counterpart, another acolyte. Baker’s expert at subtle dynamic oppositions: insiders, outriders, those who end out altogether.
Tasked with a Regret narrative Stuart McQuarrie’s self-effacing Danny M2 (because there’s two Danny Ms) finally tells one of those sad Baker stories: failing to round up chickens before a fox lunges, detailed with wistful precision. And no fox does lunge, ‘nothing happens’, once anyway.
It’s too downbeat for Sandy who acts to contain Danny’s ‘something in this life I don’t fully have access to’ and doesn’t like him passing on sexual experience either. Sandy instinctively names him Danny M2 even though he’s the first to identify as Danny M; Sandy knows the other Danny already. By such flickers we know the convener.
It’s naturally a clinical set, alien as any function room. One of its notable features is upstage right a pyramidal stack of water bottles steadily eroded by Dave and finally slept on by Eleanor. Lit by Natasha Chivers with sudden blackouts to offset the neon brightness and with other lighting surprises in blue, it’s enveloped in sound by Tom Gibbons, all moody hollowness. Movement direction’s by Sasha Milavic Davies; Illusion by Steve Cuiffo features briefly, with Charmian Hoare as voice and dialect coach separating Brits from Americans, unique to this production.
Monsters and meta-myths might fly but strikingly it’s what’s blowing in from outside that lands: Sandy dismissing one affably misogynist racist mogul as a bigot adding sardonically ‘he never held that against anyone’; and encouraging those who remember it to recall a previous session where another contributor Alejandra complained she felt uncomfortable then vanished even from her home. You recall how Sandy’s guru Jeff ‘loved women but didn’t want them around him when he worked’. Sarah’s mostly offstage.
Perhaps Sarah in her helpmeet role’s got permission, since asked to, she narrates a rather familiar tale where only gingerbread but not talking dolls are excluded. You think it might prove a game-changer like Valerie’s real ghost experience in The Weir, but is it too neat, too permitted? Doel’s inscrutable brightness is as hard as her array of vivid dresses.
Left alone with an increasingly absent Sandy but exhorted to virtually live in the place, we get Josh’s theories of time inserted versus Adam’s Yoruba theory of cyclic time. Baker plays with both and accelerates time too: in blinks. Hadley Fraser’s Josh hesitantly complains he’s never paid or accredited, despite inserting paperwork: study in hesitant grieviance. Fisayo Akinade’s Adam, thwarted earlier goes on to produce something astonishing but after a secretive nocturnal ritual Brian doesn’t take the first half down. Undeterred Adam finishes his tale. Akinade’s Adam expresses keenly an outsider’s resilience, superficially affable, but more sheerly creative, living outside Sandy’s parameters.
It’s fascinating to watch loyalists crumble. Danny M1 catching Sarah out on another excuse adds ‘I mean Sandy’s a genius. But sometimes not all his stories work out.’ And when Sandy does reappear it’s all as downbeat as Danny M2. A bit ‘how messed up everything is right now…’ not to mention ‘crazy weather’ smashing his beach houses, and Sandy’s assertion: ‘actually this is the worst possible time in the history of the world to be telling stories’.
But then it isn’t Sandy who has the last word, or on stories.
In an exemplary cast. Hill’s Sandy is an affable monster peeled to his skin like one of his storm-wrecked beach houses. There’s McQuarrie’s prophetic unease; Matthews’ rule-breaker, enunciating offhand confidences in kooky non-sequitors: but like Adam more deeply connected than any mogul. And there’s Andrew Woodall’s fuzzed-out Voice of Max to head up collapse. But the determined Akinade, the Beta-male duo of Bardock and Darvill, Doel’s almost virtual-reality administrator, an increasingly aggrieved Fraser and the ultimately crushed Milner each evoke a vivid, mostly alienated workforce.
If this doesn’t satisfy as deeply as Baker’s two previous plays, that’s because we’re treated to an antiseptic environment with nine etched characters over a shorter period. We learn about them here in flashes, not a steady pulse. And after Sandy withdraws, there’s a drop in energy partly restored with Adam. It’s still Baker though who pushes dangerously at just what theatre is.