Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation marks the UK debut for this critically acclaimed American playwright. Presented as part of the Royal Court’s Local programme which gives the theatre a greater reach beyond its Sloan Square home, The Rose Lipman Community Building becomes the perfect theatrical setting for Baker’s intricate play. Set across six weeks, Circle Mirror Transformation follows the journey of a beginner’s acting class under the instruction of Marty (Imelda Staunton). Across the class, these drifting individuals form fragile relationships as they explore acting techniques with the purpose of understanding and finding themselves. They become stretched, fused together and transformed; the acting class almost becomes therapy for their dysfunctional lives.
Baker has a unique ability to present a play that simultaneously offers nothing whilst delivering a complex and intricate layering of characters and situations. The nothingness comes from the ordinary lives presented within the play. The characters, a strange group of misfits, are presented with little pomp. They are microscopic in form, and through Baker’s dialogue they flicker with life. Within these moments, Director James Macdonald creates something wonderfully everyday from the tiniest of gestures and intonation of lines. Throughout Baker’s dialogue there are pauses, which Baker’s notes make clear are not to be overlooked or rushed: the pauses are “just as important as the dialogue”, and it’s easy to see why. With every silence, an awkwardness manifests within the space, or, like a lead balloon crashes with failed uplifting hope. It makes the experience of watching Circle Mirror Transformation an uncomfortable affair, heightened by the uninterrupted two hours of playing time. This doesn’t hinder the play, it only goes to enforce the precision of both Baker’s dialogue and Macdonald’s superb direction.
What makes Circle Mirror Transformation so engrossing is the complex simplicity of the performances delivered from the cast. Their everyday awkwardness is stifling, but the more the silences fall, and the more they are encouraged to participate in Marty’s class, the more you warm to these hopeless individuals. Shannon Tarbet, playing the 16-year-old Lauren, is a particular joy; her presence is like a chameleon, constantly camouflaged against the other characters, but in her stillness there is a relentless energy that sucks you into watching her even when she’s not speaking. Toby Jones, as the 40-year-old carpenter Schultz, is like a wooden plank that steadily absorbs water over time to warp and converge on himself, emerging as a colourful character before returning once more to stillness. Fenella Woolgar (Theresa) bubbles with giddy delight but strip back that gayness and you’ll find a broken woman wrapped in deflating bubble-wrap, whilst Danny Webb (James) is a strong and sturdy figure, with cracks exposing his disappointment. If Circle Mirror Transformation delivers one idea, it is how deeply complex and intricate each of us as humans are, and how when placed under a microscope we can see the life that bubbles unnoticed beneath.
The thing that even now I can’t shake from Baker’s play is the simplicity of form and delivery. At times it is repetitive, the punctuating of scenes with blackouts and shuffling of actors within the space, but when is life not one repetitive action punctuated with the blackness of sleep? The title of Baker’s play feels particularly apt: the characters journey through a circle, their own lives are reflected back at them through the acting class, and whilst they may be worse for wear by the end, their transformation is complete. It would be too easy to discard Baker’s play as an attempt to display the absurdities of actors performing a play about learning to act. “When are we going to start acting?” asks Lauren, to which Marty answers, “We are acting” – which seems particularly tongue-in-cheek. But to discard the play would be to overlook the beauty within Baker’s care and consideration, her precision at forming in minute detail the characters that appear so ordinary that they’re rooted in complex patterns of dysfunctional troubles.
Circle Mirror Transformation isn’t easy to watch, it feels claustrophobic and stiff, but within this is a complete sense of control and relaxation. Baker’s dialogue is punchy and full of comedy with Macdonald’s direction bringing out the humour in every flicker of movement and silence. Staunton shines with a particular otherworldly quality as Marty, rooting the play with some superb delivery.
The richness within Baker’s understanding of the world she is putting together makes for a fascinating and engrossing play. The simplicity of the everyday characters and situation that Baker draws is remarkable, and whilst I’m confused about what I felt towards the piece (I laughed, I felt lost, and marvelled at the simplicity), there’s no denying the talent that Baker has. Circle Mirror Transformation feels like a challenging play, shifting the naturalism of the everyday whilst making a leap above and beyond naturalism of theatre. Baker strikes at something intrinsically human and everyday, and she does so with such a punch to the stomach that you really are left quite befuddled and breathless from it. Now that must be a sure sign of a piece of theatre worth exploring East London for.
Circle Mirror Transformation is playing as part of the Royal Court Theatre’s Local programme at the Rose Lipman Building until 3 August. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Court Theatre website.