Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Antipodes by Annie Baker – Red Stitch

The cast of The Antipodes at Red Stitch
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

A group of writers sit around hoping to devise the perfect story. It’s purgatory with fluorescent lighting. It’s Satre’s No Exit. Hell is Other Writers.

It’s a creation myth birthed onto a boardroom table.

It’s the writers’ room of a television show.

Actually, who they are and what they are doing is not made explicit, but it’s a commentary on storytelling by committee, which playwright Annie Baker seems suspicious of, even as she recognises the connections of telling stories in a group.

At the head of the table is the showrunner, Sandy; revered by every writer in the room. And he’s one degree of separation from a screenwriting legend – a man who knows how to create stories forwards and backwards.

Each writer in this team knows how lucky they are to have this job. To be able to create stories. To be able to tell stories. And, best of all, to make shitloads of money.

The close-quarters, pressure-cooker environment is played in traverse in Red Stitch’s always-intimate space. Eight actors squeezed around a long table, occasionally visited by Sandy’s assistant, Sarah (Edwina Samuels, in a thoroughly energetic and exciting performance). The production is cramped and uncomfortable, getting messier as the show goes on.

Baker’s play has a lot on its mind. In some ways, the characters themselves might be aspects of a single writer trying to put words on a page. I wondered if this was some kind of “Inside Out”-style deep-dive into the creative process; brainstorming ideas, throwing out every personal detail and trying to make sense of the wildest thought on a whiteboard.

The play also tackles the commodification of storytelling and the inherent risks of a workplace where people are expected to bare their souls and pick apart their personalities for the good of the script.

One of the most interesting aspects is the spectre of a writer who used to work in the room: Alejandra, a woman who the men remember only as a complainer. Not surprisingly, they never listened to her concerns about this unhealthy work environment.

The text itself asks a lot of those who collaborate on it. This isn’t only a commentary on writing as team sport, it is also an ode to the importance of storytelling in an era where we’re so distracted.

Sandy warns his underlings early on to put their phones away, to be present – and that is the double-edge of the writer’s life; we must write but we must live life. Trapping yourself in a room isn’t necessarily the most productive way of finding the perfect story.

Director Ella Caldwell has chosen to play the naturalism of the piece, missing Baker’s tendency toward heightened naturalism which later evolves into magic realism. This production seems so concerned with the details (the food orders, the drudgery of plotting, and the cans of LaCroix mineral water) that it misses moments of the divine.

The cast of characters is frustrating, on the whole. Ngaire Dawn Fair’s Eleanor is reserved throughout until she finds a moment to relate the first stories she wrote in childhood. George Lingard makes the most of Danny M2’s monologue about vulnerability, before becoming another outcast because he’s not ready to put his life on the line in service of the show.

Are all these writers islands in a stream-of-consciousness? They rarely connect with each other, determined that their addition to the fabric of the story is paramount. Brian (Casey Filips) has some amusing trivial asides. Harvey Zielinski is the right amount of desperate as Josh, who is not even getting paid to be there.

Late in the play, we realise these writers are trapped. It’s not just the repetition of days. They cannot go. They cannot move on. Not until they realise the perfect story. Never grasping that perfection is the enemy of the good. And that until they make choices, they’ll be spit-balling forever.

Annie Baker’s The Antipodes is about people telling stories about telling stories. It knows how important that is to help us define ourselves, our experiences and our lives. Baker knows it’s what we have when we have nothing else.

Red Stitch’s production captures the feeling of being trapped; the claustrophobia and the inability to measure time. Unfortunately, some of its other choices strangle this play’s apotheosis. The tone is stultifying naturalism. The magic realism doesn’t feel magical at all.

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