Annie Baker’s back at the National with a show about stories, and she knows how to tell them: not with heroes and quests and plot points that smack you in the face, but with oblique angles and infinitesimal changes in tone, temperature and atmosphere.
In Baker’s new play, there are six writers (only one woman) and a note-taker around a big table in a featureless conference room. What they’re writing is never clear. At their head is Conleth Hill’s guru-cum-dictator Sandy, chief writer, who keeps asking them to recount stories from their lives for inspiration: the time they lost their virginity, their biggest regret. This is a ‘sacred space’ after all. Stories are sacred.
The table is too big, the distance to the door too far, the piles of boxes full of Perrier water too many and inexplicable. It’s all recognisable, but made slightly wrong. Further nightmarish tints are added to this corporate tableau by Natasha Chivers’ almost entirely diegetic lighting – fluorescent glares – and Tom Gibbons’ superbly imperceptible sound design. The noise of air conditioning thrums sometimes, sometimes doesn’t.
That set, that lighting and the play itself are exquisitely detailed constructions of reality. Hyper-real in fact. As with Baker’s previous plays, dialogue overlaps and gets interrupted. But, again as in previous work, it knows that the ultra-naturalism is only just this side of uncanny. And sometimes it deliberately and creepily leans into the uncanny.
With Baker co-directing alongside designer Chloe Lamford, it’s no surprise that set, script and direction are all so symbiotic. All feed the uneasy atmosphere that makes it feel like we’re trapped in there with them, having to listen to endless, aimless stories.
There’s an extraordinary acuteness in the minute details of body language: one of the writers with his shoeless feet on the table, one sitting too close to the only woman in the room. The non-verbal matters just as much as the dialogue.
Conleth Hill’s Sandy insists he won’t make the writers work past seven, or on weekends, but then does. He’s a quiet tyrant. Hill might well have played him full of threat and latent violence, but actually he makes the character as slightly sad and weary. When his writers are telling their deeply personal stories, he is rapt. When the story subsides, he looks lost.
Mostly he’s a useless manager. He breaks his own rules (no texting) and wishes he didn’t have to hire a woman or a Chinese person just to fill quotas. “I’m a nice guy,” he says before sauntering the too-long distance to the door to get home early.
But singling anyone out seems particularly unfair for this cast. It’s incredibly rare to see actors who give such strong, distinct individual performances, while also being completely on the same wavelength as an ensemble.
What Baker has to say about story and storytelling is complex and many-layered, and in the course of the play she has characters tell some cracking stories in fantastic ways. It’s as much about how we communicate those stories as the importance of stories themselves. It also feels like a writers’ room at the saturation point of writing. We’ve got so much high value, high quality TV, as well as video games and films, that the pressure to write stories is constant. This is the absurd endpoint.
We’re only in the writers’ room for two hours, they’re in there for God knows how long, but for them and us it feels like an eternity. Testing patience is a Baker special, and no one does it with such artistry. Excruciating and masterful at the same time, this is a huge allusion of a play – always skirting, never defining – and all the more potent, and relevant, for it.