IN BRIEF Corporate strip-mining attempt at storytelling runs out of steam, but is an intriguing -if uneasy- ride

Perhaps I can start by quibbling with Annie Baker’s characters’ arguing about the number of types of stories there are; to my mind, there are only two types of story- the interesting and the uninteresting. Most fall somewhere in between- as does THE ANTIPODES.

The power of storytelling to engage a collective unconscious has always been prized. No surprise then that the shady “project” that is happening here seems to be searching for some way to commodify this process, almost to reduce it to the sterility of an algorithm.

Set in a soulless corporate boardroom with a psychotically orange carpet and mountain of Perrier boxes at one end of the room, we are introduced to an indeterminate group of people (with just one woman – who has the best ideas and stories, natch,  appropriated by the others, natch) whose only vague discernible group talent seems to be attempting to tell stories. They rely on Google a lot to plug the gaps in their knowledge.

Under the distracted eye of superficially laid-back boss Sandy (played deliciously by Conleth Hill cutting a West Coast vibe with distinct Trumpian overtones), fledgling stories come tumbling out. “Stories are better than ever” declares Sandy, (a conscious or unconscious paraphrasing of the countrywide ad line used for movies – just before tv crippled their reign?). There is a great “power jerk” sequence where Sandy blathers on about nothing for minutes while the group listen in rapt attention – simply because he’s the one signing their paycheques.

There is manipulation everywhere in this set up; when Eleanor uses her phone in the room she is pulled up by Arthur Darvill’s character citing an “honour system”. And later he steals her ideas, as another steals Josh’s explanation of time. There is no camaraderie here.

There are many unanswered questions here in this uncertain room. “This is a great job” says Dave (a convincingly slimy Darvill) several times. Each less convincing than the last. And when Hadley Fraser’s inside-outsider Josh complains about his ongoing lack of security clearance, it is he who is made to feel uncomfortable and apologetic.

The group’s participants consciously buy in to the questionable nature of this setup, including choice phrases like “we’re behind schedule” and other unquantified expressions designed to pile on the pressure. When they uncomfortably cross boundaries of the personal/public spheres, storytellers invoke a “cone of silence” on what they share, and play the game of trusting it – yet all the time there is someone writing everything they say into a laptop.  The muddling of truth and lies sits at the crux of all this. “I feel like you think I’ve made something up” says one of the flakier storytellers who exits the boardroom for a one-to-one chat with Sandy- and never returns.

Finally, the “project” collapses (rather like the show’s own ending) as the show returns to the simplicity of Eleanor’s children’s stories which have an honesty unmatched by anything else, which gives a sense of relief with which to end the show.

The performances are all of a very high standard, with Hill and Darvill already mentioned joined by Sinead Matthew as Eleanor and Imogen Doel as laser-perky PA Sarah.

I particularly enjoyed writer Baker’s scorn for technology and its fallibility, with the ever dropping out signals reducing an attempted conversation to a half-empty crossword puzzle. She uses humour along the way for a variety of effects- from the dumb to the plain weird, which is all entertaining enough.

I have been intrigued by Baker’s work since THE FLICK sought to consciouslyslow audiences’ attention down, to make them wait, examine the pause, feel the emptiness. Perhaps she was happy to see that so many people never returned for the second act of that show, pitching in at around three and a quarter hours. Here, she almost physically excludes large swathes of the audience, with actors working with their backs to the audience on the long thrust stage. It can feel like Baker treats her audiences in a cavalier manner, but personally I like her audacity.

THE ANTIPODES had a short run at the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium, ending on November 23rd

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