The Antipodes at the National Theatre: ‘an original way of bringing to the stage a story about storytelling’
As the actors of The Antipodes remind the audience, there are multiple ways of telling a story: some claim six, others seventeen based on the ways characters might die. Annie Baker’s new play, co-directed with its designer Chloe Lamford, has certainly found an original way of bringing to the stage a story about storytelling. However, if you are looking for any of the elements normally considered at the basis of any narrative – plot, context, well-defined characters – you will most certainly leave the theatre disappointed.
Set in a conference room in an unspecified time which looks and sounds frighteningly familiar, a group of six people is brainstorming ideas for the creation of an undefined story under the leadership of Sandy, a charismatic CEO-like figure admired by everyone in the room. No precise information is given about any of the characters other than the stories they choose to share and no hint of how much time is passing is offered apart from the outfit changes of Sarah, Sandy’s PA. No precise line of development is followed. While it manages to convey with great irony the atmosphere of a corporate company, thanks to brilliant performances by Conleth Hill as Sandy and Imogen Dole in the role of a fantastically creepy PA; it would be extremely reductive to say that The Antipodes is a play about contemporary corporate life.
Taking its cue from this setting, the play transports its audience through several stories-in-the-making, spanning from the comical to the dramatic, from the epic to the ordinary. With no interval and no change in setting, the play manages to infuse a tiny space and a limited time with a mythical character, touching universal questions without directly engaging with any of them. Failing to tell a definite story while interlinking several of them, Baker’s play is a masterful experiment in revealing and concealing, in playing with the universal while focusing on the particular.
At one point, one of the characters wonders what communication would look like without time. One of The Antipodes’ greatest achievement is certainly the way it plays with time, twisting any linear temporal development. Not only is time one of the main concerns of the characters, but the play itself develops following complex rhythms which articulate around snappy and overlapping dialogues, Pinter-like silences, and relatively long monologues. Time is thus diluted and concentrated, as the action intermittedly speeds up and slows down.
If one of the fears faced by some of the characters is that there are no more stories to be told, The Antipodes is proof that, luckily, this is not the case today, no matter how fucked up our times might appear to us. If you want to be amused, confused and captivated, make sure not to miss this show.
The Antipodes is playing at the National Theatre, London, until 23 November.
Photograph credit: Manuel Harlan.