They say ‘write about what you know’ and so it makes perfect sense that lauded American playwright Annie Baker’s latest offering is focused on the happenings inside a writers’ room where a group of young storytellers are encouraged to plunder the depths of their personal histories in order to create a great new work. It’s a bit like taking a look behind the wizard’s curtain, although if The Antipodes is any reflection on Baker’s own experiences with the development process it’s a slightly scary one.
Set on a traverse stage is a boardroom table around which six writers convene with their head writer Sandy (Jim Daly) and his assistant Brian (Casey Filips), to brainstorm ideas for an unspecified script – is it a film, a TV series or something else? It’s hard to say. Certainly it seems like whatever the output, it’s going to be in the science-fiction/fantasy genre, with much talk of Greek mythological creatures, trolls, dwarves and elves, fractured fairy tales and timelines that are vertical, horizontal, wavering and looping like an ouroboros. It’s often quite fantastic and mythical.
Why therefore Sandy chooses to stimulate the group’s creative juices by insisting that they each talk about their own deeply personal experiences – such as how they lost their virginity or the most terrible thing that has ever happened in their life – to create a work that will fall into a genre format, is a bit mystifying in itself. But it does generate more intriguing content for Baker’s story than the otherwise plotless narrative drives.
Some of the stories are good fun, such as Dave (Darcy Kent) and his youthful method for resisting premature ejaculation, Danny M1 (Ben Prendergast) and his tale of recovery from a sexually transmitted infection, and Danny M2’s (George Lingard) weirdly wonderful story of a corn husk and a pink rock. But not all of the monologues Baker provides are winners, with more than a couple testing the attention span of the audience. At times it even seems she’s being unnecessarily cruel with skill-testers for the actors’ memory that add little story-telling value to the whole.
What Baker does exceptionally well however, is without ceremony, skewer the nature of the commercial creative development process and all its skin-crawling, discriminatory tropes. Besides Sandy’s perky office manager Sarah (Edwina Samuels), who regularly pops in to collect food orders and at one point offers a McDonagh-esque tale that’s the most riveting of the evening, there is only one woman in this world of men. Writer Eleanor (Ngaire Dawn Fair) is in complete contrast to her Chinese takeaway scoffing peers, snacking on Granny Smith apples with almond butter, and knitting to keep her hands busy, somehow she seems to take their blokey stories and viewpoints in her stride, even keeping quiet when she hears about Sandy’s intimidating behaviour with a former team’s female writer. There’s also young newbie Josh (Harvey Zielinski) who is so desperate to be a part of Sandy’s team he continues to work despite ‘paperwork issues’ meaning that three months into the job he still hasn’t been paid.
Many of the bad workplace behaviours that are rife in the creative arts industry, and yet so often brushed aside, are on clear display in this ‘think tank’ of Baker’s making. One has to assume if she hasn’t witnessed these things for herself, she’s certainly heard stories first hand that make the references ring disturbingly true.
The ultimate truth of this story though is that none of the brainstorming done seems to amount to anything, and perhaps that is the definitive point Baker is trying to make about what these creative processes are like. However, that doesn’t help make the overall impression feel particularly satisfying or even edifying.
Ella Caldwell’s direction makes some use of the limited space provided, but for a production presented in the traverse, often there really isn’t enough movement of characters to ensure both sides of the audience get a fair view of the action. Baker’s script makes a couple of diversions into completely surreal territory, which sits a little uneasily considering the minimal opportunity taken with lighting and sound design in these moments.
Each of the characters get their chance to shine through monologue in the course of the play and in particular Samuels’ Sarah, Dushan Philips’ Adam, and Lingard’s Danny M2, sporting a superlative Minnesota accent, provide gripping accounts. Despite Daly being very wobbly with his dialogue, often searching for his lines, the whole cast are very strong in their performances and at times the unsteady delivery gives way to a form of naturalism for elder statesman Sandy.
This is immersive, modern theatre for those who are as interested in the process of creative development as they are in the output itself. At one act of two hours it might be frustrating for audiences who prefer their entertainment to have a clear point, but it will no doubt spur much conversation for those who enjoy a post-show ponder.
Images: Jodie Hutchinson