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Phil Willmott

Review: THE ANTIPODES at the National Theatre

The Antipodes - National Theatre I was looking forward to this because reviews and word of mouth about American writer Annie Baker’s recent plays at the National Theatre, JOHN and the THE FLICK were so blisteringly good and I’d missed both.

I had hoped to join the appreciation society by seeing her 2017 piece THE ANTIPODES, in this new National Theatre production, its London premiere. But oh dear, I seem to have arrived at the Annie Barker party just as it’s going off the boil.

She presents us with a group of professional writers brainstorming story ideas supervised by an industry guru. Presumably they’re trying to come up with a hit film or TV show. The hours drag by, literally and in the play, until they sink into a delirium whilst trapped over night in their windowless conference room.

There’s a few surreal moments but barely enough to spark life into proceedings and some witty swipes at the pomposity of powerful Hollywood types and the absurdities of the most popular story telling theories.

The group is facilitated by Sandy, played with a light touch by Conleth Hill. The luxury cast are good at expressing their deference to his indifference but Barker’s own flaccid direction misses the desperation to succeed that I’ve encountered in such groups.

There are 3 very clear warning signs that a great playwright has lost their way and are no longer in tune with their audience. Individually these traits are relatively harmless but collectively they mean the writer needs to take stock - and a holiday.

  1. They write about how difficult it is to be a writer, blind to the fact that no else relates to, or cares about, the privileged struggles of successful playwrights.
  2. With little previous directing experience they decide they’re the best person to direct their piece with no necessity to take advice from anyone.
  3. They imagine their long, over indulgent work is so enthralling it would break the spell to have an interval.

And as an optional extra-

4. They use metaphor so obtusely that audience members need to read the extensive programme notes to “get it” 

On this occasion Barker ticks all those boxes.

A conference table set juts out into the audience which is banked up along three sides of the action. Actors Matt Bardovk and Sinead Matthews, as an alpha male and the groups only female writer, make the most impression but then they were also the only characters whose faces I could see through out.

Everyone else sat at the table in profile or with their back to me including Arthur Darvill in a nothing part with which he does nothing.

Credit must be given to Tom Gibbon’s sound design, so subtle as to be barely perceptible, he recreates the oppressive background hum of air conditioning etc that’s so characteristic of soulless corporate spaces.

This is an ineffectual production of a limp idea. I was going to add that it’ll only be of interest to writers. But then I’m a writer and it didn’t interest me either.