Review - Annie Baker's The Antipodes at the National Theatre
In a recent Guardian interview by journalist and broadcaster Mark Lawson, Annie Baker was described as "the most original and significant American dramatist since August Wilson, but her plays should still be avoided by people who like plot and theme clearly signposted." And reviewing John, her last play to be seen at this same address last year, I myself wrote: "Theatrical marmite doesn't come more pungently or demandingly flavoured than this: the UK premiere of Annie Baker's latest is the strangest new play in many a long day (and even longer night)."
The Antipodes starts with one key advantage: it's a lot shorter than either John or her previous play The Flick (which also received its British premiere at the National), running straight through for only two hours. By now, too, we are at least familiar with the unfamiliarity of the unsettling rhythms and dramatic withholdings of Baker's writing. You know you just have to surrender and go with the flow (and sometimes the lack of it).
This time we're in a very handsomely appointed conference room in an unnamed place, where a gathering of six co-workers (five men, one woman) are barnstorming ideas for an unspecified purpose with their boss (who becomes increasingly absent from the proceedings) and a young male note-taker. A female secretary drops in occasionally to pick up food orders or convey messages from the absent boss or his superiors.
In fact, they simply seem to be sharing stories from their lives - from frank tales of early sexual experiences to their biggest regrets and worst moments - so perhaps they are brainstorming ideas for a TV series. We are never told; it's a play about storytelling that dares to withhold the reason these stories are being told at all.
There are all sorts of mysteries here: why, for instance, do some of the actors speak with American accents and others English ones? The play is regularly surprising and constantly elusive; you're never given enough information to know (or care) what's actually going on.
The fantastic cast, however, throw themselves into it with total conviction, and in Baker's own production - co-directed with her designer Chloe Lamford - it has a spellbinding intensity. I was as gripped as I was frequently perplexed.
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