What can theatre do?
This isn’t necessarily the central question asked by Circle Mirror Transformation, Annie Baker’s delicate and precisely naturalistic portrait of five broken individuals, but it is the question that I found myself asking as I left the Rose Lipman Building on Thursday evening. Following a steady stream of superlatives on Twitter, I went in with unrealistically high expectations, all underscored with another, slightly resigned expectation of being disappointed. And while I wasn’t disappointed as such, I didn’t find it the most extraordinary, transformative theatrical experience of recent months either. But this heavy burden of expectation, together with the scenario in which Baker’s play places itself, left me thinking about what theatre can do, what it might do and what we hopes we hold for it.
Circle Mirror Transformation is, in a sense, a piece of theatre about theatre, but ‘meta’ is a word that seems completely removed from its vocabulary. No Noises Off-style send-up or self-reflexive meditation on its own medium, Baker’s play is instead about the kind of theatre that remains largely invisible. The whole thing takes place over the six weeks of an adult drama class, in a large, windowless room in a community centre in Vermont – not unlike the large, windowless room in which we find ourselves in the Rose Lipman Building. Each of the scenes, punctuated by sharp blackouts, consists of either the kind of exercise that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a drama class in their life, or the slices of conversation that happen in the room around each session.
The class is run by hippyish Marty (Imelda Staunton at her quietly expressive best) and attended by her husband James (Danny Webb), recent divorcee Schultz (a brilliantly awkward Toby Jones), once actress and now aspiring acupressure therapist Theresa (Fenella Woolgar) and enigmatic teenager Lauren (Shannon Tarbet). We see fleeting snatches of each of their lives over the course of the six weekly classes, learning enough to feel acquainted with these characters while never being furnished with the full details. Baker’s minimal writing dances deftly around the edges of life, never leaving us in any doubt of the wholeness at its centre – a wholeness that is solidified by the gorgeously nuanced performances of the cast, who execute something of an acting masterclass over the uninterrupted two hours.
The word that most naturally springs to mind when reflecting on Circle Mirror Transformation is “gentle”. This might be applied to James Macdonald’s direction, which handles Baker’s text with kid gloves, trusting it with a slow-burning pace and long, expansive silences. It certainly applies to the interactions between the five characters, which are sometimes awkward, often tender and frequently funny, in the light sort of way that you might expect from a Sunday evening TV comedy drama (that’s not meant as a dig, I should add, but – a couple of uproarious moments aside – it’s not side-clutching, tears-rolling-down-your-cheeks stuff, and I don’t think it’s meant to be). There are a couple of real kicks to the gut in there, but when these arrive they are all the more startling thanks to the calm from which they emerge. This is the placid lake of life as lived from day to day, disrupted by just the occasional ripple.
And within this seemingly uneventful structure, moments of stunning precision and incisive emotional truth emerge. There’s Tarbet’s fascinating stillness and the meaning she can somehow effortlessly invest into silences; the subtle yet devastating poignancy of a fleeting look on Staunton’s face following a kiss between Marty and James, transforming an apparently light moment into one loaded with unspoken turmoil; the simultaneously funny and sad complexity of Woolgar’s Theresa, a woman whose damaging decisions are portrayed with unwavering compassion, wrapped around the yawning loneliness that drives her actions; the painful awkwardness of Jones’ bruised but tender Schultz and the latent frustration of Webb as James. As they progress, Marty’s classes are more therapy than they are theatre, conveying the power of drama without romanticised exaggeration or sentimentality. The six-week experience changes each of its participants, yes, but they still come out at the other end as complicated, flawed and slightly broken people.
In this unapologetic concern with people – people in all their ridiculous, messy, beautiful complexity – Circle Mirror Transformation feels somehow both universal and particular, massive and miniature. It is also, however, somewhat problematic. To merely dismiss the play as inward-looking feels a bit simplistic, as the individuals within it exist very clearly within a world beyond the four walls of the community centre and the supposed banality of their lives reveals odd moments of profundity, but its quiet containment does present a certain view of what it is that theatre does. Drama might transform the lives of the characters, for better or worse, but in this room we are just presented with another set of mirrors. This is life seemingly reflected, held up to us without judgement, refusing to prioritise the big events of life over the seemingly insignificant minutiae. Which is interesting, and makes a certain statement of its own about how our culture assigns value, but it can also feel somehow resigned to the shape of the world. This is how things are.
I’m thinking this in part because of two other pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the last month, both fantastic and fascinating collaborations between Tim Crouch and Andy Smith. As they explained with enviable eloquence when I spoke to them recently, their work always has at its heart an interrogation of theatre as an art form in one way or another. In both of the shows in question – Commonwealth (available online as part of the Royal Court’s Surprise Theatre – go watch) and what happens to the hope at the end of the evening – this interrogation is the motor that drives the piece.
Each of these shows is characterised by a shared rhetoric of hope around theatre as a medium; as Crouch puts it, “An engagement with a group of people sitting in a room together is an innately hopeful act”. Commonwealth, written by Smith and performed in this instance by Crouch, is a monologue that meditates directly on the hope that we might bring into a theatre space, telling a story about a theatre a bit like this one and an audience a bit like this audience. What initially seems a little straightforward and repetitive gradually becomes an invitation to deep and probing thought, calling into question the ways in which we respond to our frustrations about the world and positing the theatre as a space where perhaps we can begin to change that. It’s about what we hope to get from the theatre and what the theatre might be able to offer us.
In what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, the ideas explored in Commonwealth are put through the wringer using an opposition between two different approaches to theatre and to the world. It tells the story of one evening in which two old friends meet after a long time apart, at the same time using this as a structure to explore the theatrical event. Smith, to all appearances, plays himself, while his friend is not a version of Crouch but a fictionalised character. Smith reads from a script and directly acknowledges and addresses the audience; Crouch’s character desperately constructs a kind of stage realism, dragging on props to support his fictional world. Smith is controlled and thoughtful; Crouch is impulsive and bent on action.
The piece is rare in achieving an almost perfect balance between narrative and ideas. Its story of a friendship, one in which an almost unbridgeable distance has forced itself between the two friends, is at times deeply moving in its own right. As a vehicle for the show’s meaty ideas, meanwhile, this device is inextricably married to the content it carries; it is all about hope, about connection and separation, about gathering people together in a space. There’s great optimism for the potentially radical quality of a gathering like this, supported by carefully selected snippets of theory, but at the same time doubt is cast on theatre’s potential, while the lack of resolution between the show’s two opposing elements concludes the whole thing on an uncertain note. It’s difficult without apologising for its complexity, but at the same time the ideas being wrestled with are presented relatively simply and accessibly. (I’m reminded of something brilliant that Kieran Hurley said to me recently in an interview: “simplicity and complexity are often two sides of the same coin”)
What is striking about both Commonwealth and what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is their ambition for the space of the theatre and what it might achieve, even as they problematise their hopes for the theatrical event. Like Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field, this is theatre that helps you think about theatre, that leaves you with a set of questions to mould around the next thing that you go out and see. Which is perhaps why Circle Mirror Transformation, despite its much-celebrated brilliance, left me wanting something more, and perhaps why I typed out that opening question. What can theatre do? I don’t really know, but I think it’s important to keep asking.
One final, positive thing about the relationship between these different pieces. My enthused fascination with the intelligence of recent programming at the Royal Court is probably getting boring by now, but it’s worth noting that Circle Mirror Transformation (part of Royal Court’s Theatre Local initiative) and Commonwealth are positioned alongside and in dialogue with one another, even if they don’t share a building. While it might seem (at least to me) as though there is something slightly lacking in Baker’s play, simply by existing in the same programme as Commonwealth it’s already taking part in a wider discussion.
These two shows also sit within a programme that includes Collaboration, a process which itself prodded at what theatre does and how it does it (and which, as Andrew Haydon points out, might well have been the ideal process to explore an idea like Baker’s), and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a joyous and inclusive instance of theatrical transformation. Add Mark Ravenhill’s Cakes and Finance to that list and you have a theatre that suddenly seems to be thinking a hell of a lot about what it is and what it does. It’s asking that same question – what can theatre do? – and providing a whole range of answers, all implicitly entering conversation with one another. And it feels exciting.