The Antipodes (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Annie Baker’s 2017 play comes to a Dorfman configured for audiences on three sides of the stage, and proves something of an elusive watch.

We are in a cavernous conference room, under a huge light feature wrapping around the room like a white snake, and the people around the table are telling stories.

Sandy (Conleth Hill, outwardly amiable but giving out a sense of intolerant menace), is the facilitator, but of who and what we are never quite sure. His team seem carefully crafted but all on the periphery of “odd”, with the six participants and their note-taker seemingly trapped in time and space.

Popping in to check on them is ultra-helpful and efficient PA, Sarah (Imogen Doel, who sports a different outfit on each appearance and has an amusing story of her own, in Grimm Fairy Tale style).

The only other woman in the piece is Sinead Matthews’s Eleanor, whose contributions are disregarded for most of the two-hour running time, but who is given the closing word.

The company of The Antipodes: Matthews, Bardock, Milner, Hill, Fraser, Darvill, Akinade, McQuarrie
The company of The Antipodes: Matthews, Bardock, Milner, Hill, Fraser, Darvill, Akinade, McQuarrie

Eleanor seems to be a nod to diversity, alongside Adam (the marvellous Fisayo Akinade), a black man whose stories also go unrecorded. Brian the notetaker (Bill Milner) is a weird bundle of neurosis, while Stuart McQuarrie as Danny M2 briefly holds the stage with a skin-tingling story about chickens.

The table is complete with Hadley Fraser’s time-obsessed Josh, Arthur Darvill’s Dave (who turns tragic memories into the stuff of throwaway laughs), and intense Danny M1 (Matt Bardock, who stares at Eleanor and recounts a particularly repulsive story about his adultery).

Co-directed by Baker and Chloe Lamford (who also designs set and costumes), this frustrating piece raises questions about who the group are working for (the disembodied voice of Max via satellite link constantly failing seems a metaphor for the struggle for a true story), and what happens to those who don’t conform.

Sinead Matthews in The Antipodes
Sinead Matthews in The Antipodes

There’s a story of HR whistleblowing which treats the disappearance of the last female participant as an aside, and Danny M2 does not return after the chicken story. Meanwhile, one of the group seems invisible, having to sign document after document but still not being welcomed into the fold.

On the surface The Antipodes seems to be a satire on corporate brainstorming, but why does Sandy slowly retreat from the group and quite what is wrong with his wife Rachel?

What does the constant and worsening poor weather mean? Are we in a world which simply imagines this scenario, or have these characters been inducted into some infinite business hell?

I found the omission of an interval rendered The Antipodes a bit of a bore at times, and perhaps we could have all done with a break. However, there were moments around movement (freezes, slow motion) that worked well, and perhaps the play could have taken a further jump of weirdness.

The Antipodes continues at the Dorfman until 23 November. Photo credits Manuel Harlan.