Review: Circle Mirror Transformation, Royal Court off-site
Published in New Statesman, 20.07.2013
Within a year of its New York premiere, Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation was the second most produced play in the United States. On its first outing in the UK – as Vicky Featherstone’s first choice for the Royal Court – it looks every inch a modern classic.
Baker shows us snapshots from a six-week community theatre class; short, staccato scenes punctuated by blackouts. We see a group of five playing drama games – counting collectively, chatting in gibberish, being trees and other inanimate objects. Occasionally, we glimpse their break-time small talk: a snatched flirtation here, a morsel of unsolicited lifestyle advice there. There’s little more than that – the weeks pass, their counting improves – but, two hours later, five lives have flipped on their axes; some for better; some for worse.
The class is led by Marty (Imelda Staunton), a wouldbe smalltown spirit guide of sorts, who speaks with the regulated cotton wool calm of a professional therapist. Her husband James is taking part – not for the first time and not ungrudgingly. By the first session’s first break, he’s already raised the flickering possibility of usurpation by quietly undermining her instructions.
The paying participants are Schultz (Toby Jones), a carpenter still reeling from his divorce a year ago; Theresa (Fenella Woolgar), a recently retired thirty-something actress still hung up over a controlling ex-boyfriend, and Lauren (Shannon Tarbet), a teenager with ambitions to become an actress (or a vet) and a difficult home life.
Baker’s skill – and superpower might be a more fitting term – is to let these background biographies come out in the wash. Her exposition is featherlight. This is a play where who gets asked to embody a favourite tree speaks volumes; where Schultz describing Theresa’s recent “toxic relationship” tells you as much about him as her. Baker’s characters betray themselves; through unthinking word selection, through reflex reactions and in unregarded moments. It’s cringe comedy with huge heart – sometimes hilariously deadpan, sometimes deeply tender – and it’s a hugely satisfying thing to watch. You’re forced into – and rewarded for – forensic attention.
The plot per se happens in the play’s peripheries. The room temperature changes. Group dynamics shift. Five strangers start to trust one another and deep-buried secrets sift to the surface. Schultz and Theresa begin and end the sort of ill-judged, impulsive affair of two lonely souls colliding. James and Marty’s marriage starts to show its splinters. Lauren, who just wants to do some “proper acting,” learns a bit about life, a bit about herself and a bit about people. Baker’s life-changers aren’t lightning bolts, but longshore drift.
These are all damaged, wounded individuals. Life has made them brittle and they have accumulated hang-ups and insecurities with age. If each of them, in their own way, feels invisible, Marty’s class lets them feel seen again. That fosters a newfound confidence, but there’s a delicate balance between being seen and performing, between presence and ego. (The title’s key: it refers to a call-and-response exercise that’s intended to improve listening and foster togetherness, but elevates one individual and becomes a conch that gets snatched.)
These games, all sharing and self-revelation, have a real-world, off-stage impact. Their side effects are positive and negative. One character telling another’s life story can throw up some hard-to-take home truths. Overall, Marty’s not in total control. Seemingly innocuous exercises have the dangerous, unknown potential of a Ouija board.
This is what makes Circle Mirror Transformation far more than a two-hour diversion. Baker’s aiming at something universal: the vulnerable individual in the big, bad world. It’s a play that leaves you determined to care more and to care better; to check your ego and donate your time and energy to others. Because for all that Marty and co. fuck up and fuck up, they mean well and they keep on trying. Kind hearts win out – not absolutely, perhaps, and certainly not immediately, but in the long run. Baker ends with a coup de theatre of breathtaking simplicity: a drama exercise imagining a possible future crossfades into a hopeful reality.
James McDonald’s skilful production does all that’s asked of it – the text does most of the work itself, but it could so easily be ruined. Baker prefaces the script with a plea to “treat these characters with compassion. They are not fools.” His cast respect that challenge and are unanimously superb. Staunton treads a delicate line between martyr and monster without seeking our approval or castigation. Jones wears every half-thought on his ragged face: awkwardness and agony writ equally large. Tarbet plays Lauren with an astonishing stillness; she’s a surface in which the rest of the play is reflected.
In short, go – and if you can’t, demand the Royal Court extend it until you can. If that doesn’t work, just read it. Baker’s writing really is that good all by itself.
Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey