Strange and terrible events unfold around us. Conflicts erupt; catastrophes occur; a billionaire reality television performer reminiscent of a snake oil merchant is elected president of the United States. Following these destabilising forces, a chorus comprised of dissonant tones of reproach and plea often emerges: ‘Where are the artists’ voices?’ The answer is nuanced. Singular voices are present early; Toni Morrison’s haunting elegy ‘The Dead of September 11’ was published in Vanity Fair a month after 9/11, while Ali Smith’s glorious novel Autumn (2016) appeared a few months after the Brexit referendum. Generally, though, arts requires a longer gestation.
Annie Baker’s latest play, The Antipodes (2017), is mainly about something she has intimate knowledge of: story. The writing teacher’s mantra ‘Write what you know’ features as a motif throughout, even as it is never stated. As with most good stories, the play is about many things, but one of its preoccupations is with how we tell stories about our reality. For Baker, the lens is an American one. Her accolades include a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for The Flick, a wonderfully funny and nostalgic homage to the demise of film when it was superseded by digital, and which is also a deft study of humanity’s grace and flaws (Red Stitch presented it in 2014 and 2015.) Baker, with her distinctive voice, is known for employing a kind of verbatim speech. Inane non sequiturs, circuitous conversation, silences not of the menacing Pinteresque kind but prolonged and pregnant with awkwardness and truth, mesh together to establish her character’s plausibility.
In The Antipodes, which is staged in the traverse, the audience enters the writers' cave. Instead of encountering a solitary garret, eight writers gathered around a conference table, intent on creating a new television series. We know that outside these walls we are in the midst of experiencing a golden age of television history where the ‘idiot box’ has been elevated into art form. Littérateurs refer to the medium without embarrassment, political commentary seems to be most astute in The Handmaid’s Tale, and Transparent appears to be a potent agency for social awareness.