Mirrors, Hope and Transformation

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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.

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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 Harta 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.

Putting Hope on the Stage: Tim Crouch & a smith

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“An engagement with a group of people sitting in a room together is an innately hopeful act,” argues Tim Crouch, leaning forward slightly in his chair. This statement is something of a starting point for what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, the new show that Crouch has co-written with his friend and long-time collaborator Andy Smith (who goes by the working name of a smith). When I ask about the impetus behind the work, the pair suggest that the title has been lingering in the background of their plays for a long time; Crouch mentions the character of Adrian in The Author and his comment that “there’s always hope, isn’t there?” Even in the work’s bleakest moments, hope is an integral part of its metabolism.

“I think that’s why we go into the theatre,” says Crouch, as Smith nods in agreement. “I think the fact that we are making art is a hopeful thing.” When I speak to the pair in the Almeida Theatre’s rehearsal space, there is definitely a taste of optimism in the air. Despite having only a week of rehearsal time before opening the Almeida Festival – a tight timescale that they find both terrifying and exciting – the mood in the room is distinctly positive. That same afternoon they are inviting the Almeida staff in for a full run-through, speaking eagerly about the opportunity to try the work out in front of an audience – an opportunity that is perhaps even more important for the development of this piece than for their previous work.

While Crouch and Smith have worked together repeatedly over the past few years, on productions including The Author and An Oak Tree, this new show marks something of a departure for them both. As well as co-writing the piece, they will be sharing the same stage for the first time, something that Crouch tells me has been “in the air” for some time: “I have long harboured the idea of working on stage with Andy”. The pair are the only performers in the piece and each occupy their own distinct space on the stage, in a show that Crouch describes as being “about two old friends and the complexity of an evening they spend together”.

After our chat over lunch, Crouch and Smith are joined by director and regular collaborator Karl James for the afternoon’s work and the three men quickly settle into a comfortable rhythm. There’s both ease and teasing in the trio’s rehearsal shorthand – the marks of friendship and long collaboration. Crouch explains that all three “inhabit the same concerns about an audience and a connection with an audience activating the work”, as well as sharing “an identification with some of the challenges that exist in theatre”. The shift in this new piece, however, has cast their collaboration in a new light.

“There’s familiarity – we’ve developed a shared language – but it feels like the language has been reinvigorated slightly by a change in the dynamic,” says Smith. He also discusses how the joint writing process has “illuminated” both his and Crouch’s separate artistic processes, revealing retrospectively the different ways in which they work. At the same time, Crouch is keen to stress that what happens to the hope at the end of the evening extends the concerns that have populated their previous collaborations, existing “on a continuum of conversation” with past work.

It is fitting, given the joint history of these collaborators and their shared fascination with the form of the theatrical event, that what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is an exploration of theatre seen through an exploration of friendship. Unlike many theatrical devices that function as mere vehicles or mouthpieces, here the two central themes are inextricable from one another. As Smith puts it, “the story of the friendship is mirrored in its form”, while the structure of live performance finds expression through the relationship between two old friends; both involve meeting together in a space and negotiating that space separately and together at the same time.

“Andy sits at the side of the stage and introduces himself and ostensibly he tells his own story,” Crouch explains the structure of the piece. “And playing opposite that is a fictionalised, identifiable other character, who kind of inhabits the other sort of form, the other sort of world. He’s a character who attempts to make sense of the world by being physically present in it rather than sitting at the side of it and watching it – by being physically present in a world that he is working very hard to generate on this stage. The push and the pull is between those two worlds.”

As well as this tension between two different understandings of theatre – one open and acknowledging of its audience, one frantically attempting to construct a form of realist representation – the piece explores another opposition, between movement and stasis. “Two channels of consideration in this play are around action and inaction,” says Crouch. “So my character is active – politically active, sexually active, physically active. Andy’s character in this play is inactive or reflective.” While the strain between these two positions powers the play, it is important for Crouch and Smith that “we don’t at any point resolve that”.

There is also another kind of action or inaction that this show implicitly, gently interrogates: that of the audience. Countering the discourse that would position theatre audiences as passive receivers, Smith firmly says, “I do consider going to the theatre and sitting in the stalls to be an action”. His reasoning recalls that of Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator, a text quoted at the front of Crouch’s collected plays. “There is space left for the audience,” Smith continues, “space for them to occupy mentally, physically. I talk about the space of the theatre and what we do here and what we can do here.” Although, as Crouch is quick to add, “that discourse is problematised as well”.

“The less we do, the more they do,” Crouch puts it simply. Similarly to The Author, this is “a piece that exists as much in the audience’s heads as it exists here”, asking its spectators to be active despite not leaving their seats. But both Crouch and Smith are careful with the language they use about audiences, balancing their hope in the space of the theatre with a healthy dose of scepticism. “It’s not a kind of love-in,” Crouch stresses. “We also want to understand that there is difficulty when people come together; there is difficulty when someone tries to organise community.”

For all these concerns about the theatrical event, however, Crouch and Smith are adamant that this is not just a show for people who regularly attend and think about theatre. “There’s so much language around theatre,” Crouch reflects. “We play with that language about theatre, but I don’t think this language is just for people who are thinking about theatre; I would be disappointed if it was.” Smith adds, “it is a discourse on theatre, but I hope it’s entertaining, I hope it’s a distraction, I hope it’s a good evening out”.

Alongside all these competing ideas – ideas that the piece “problematises and challenges and gets dirty with” – the work is also in dialogue with the particular festival context in which it finds itself, both at the Almeida Festival and in the Forest Fringe programme in Edinburgh next month. As a show about both the space of the theatre and what we do when we leave that space, what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is a perfect festival primer.

“What happens to you at the end of the show?” Crouch echoes the title of the piece. “At a festival, you’re going to go and see something else. It feels like there’s a very clear statement of intent or of questioning in this piece, and that is a really nice thing to have in relation to your theatregoing. To have something to reflect on, to refer back to, or to apply to other things.”

Photo: Mae-Li Evans.