Sunday 14 July 2013

Circle Mirror Transformation – Royal Court (off-site, Haggerston)

[if you read to the end (2963 words) you deserve some sort of medal]

Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (CMT), directed by James Macdonald at the Rose Lipman Building in Haggerston as part of the Royal Court’s Theatre Local initiative, is a two hour play about the lives of five people attending a six-week adult Creative Drama class at a community center in Shirley, Vermont.

We only see the characters when they’re in the room where the drama class happens – which in this production, is an actual room in an actual community centre where actual drama classes actually happen. The characters are still played by actors, though. There’s Marty (short for Martha), 55, played by Imelda Staunton, who leads the class and who is married to James, 60, played by Danny Webb, who is also attending the class. Then there’s Schultz, 48 (Toby Jones), Theresa, 35 (Fenella Woolgar), and Lauren, 16 (Shannon Tarbett).

We gradually come to know the characters through watching them perform drama exercises – there’s the lying on the floor and counting to ten as a group one, the walking round at different speeds being aware of everyone else in the room one, and there are a lot of interview your partner and talk about them ones. It’s a clever conceit, only slightly punctured by the fact that Baker lets herself off the hook and also shows us a bunch of before-class and in-the-break conversations between the five attendees as well.

What we get to know is [necessarily spoilery. But then the run’s sold out. But then, if it isn’t aiming for a West End transfer with a cast like that, I’ll eat my hat (and have even more respect for New Royal Court). Anyway...] what we get to know is: there’s a palpable tension between Marty and James. Schultz is initially socially awkward, divorced a year ago but still wearing his wedding ring. Theresa is also a bit awkward, has recently broken up with her emotionally manipulative live-in boyf in New York and has abandoned her acting aspirations to retrain as an acupressure therapist. Lauren is sixteen. Her dad has been in trouble with the law and her mother’s mother who lives with them wants her mother to leave her dad. Actually, Lauren’s a bit of a red-herring: the Ally Sheedy character in The Breakfast Club, but without an Emilio Estavez to get off with in the final reel (so, Brian, actually).

The emotional motor of the play is Theresa. She quickly falls into having *a thing* with Schultz, and then breaks it off. She the flirts with James, who promptly falls for her (we suppose) who then reveals as much in a game of “write a secret on a piece of paper”. Meanwhile, we’ve learnt that Marty (deliberately? Accidentally?) sabotaged James relationship with his daughter (from his previous marriage) by casually referring to an affair he had. And then, that Marty might have been abused by her father. This last bit seems a bit crow-barred in, casually cropping up as a possible reason for her suffering Night Terrors suggested by Schultz in Week Four and being dropped in as (we assume) her secret in Week Five.

Actually, it’s the “write your secret down” bit, where, for me, the wheels came off the script a bit. In theory, it is quite ambiguous. In Macdonald’s production, but definitely prompted by the stage directions of the script, we’re not really left in any doubt as to who put in which secret. Watching, it occurred to me that the play would have been much more interesting if it turned out to have been James who worries that “My father may have molested me”, and if it was Lauren (rather than Schultz, we assume) who might be the one who has a “problempossibleaddiction [one word] with internt pornography”. As it is, “Lauren giggles” when “I secretly think I am smarter than everyone else in the world” is read out, leaving us to be a bit, ‘well, duh’, when Theresa’s self-analysis “I think that everything I do is propelled by my fear of being alone” is the last to be revealed.

After all, that’s not a secret. Either about her, or about anyone else, really. And everything Theresa does is actually propelled by her class identity and economic circumstances, so her self-analysis can go to hell.

The level of textual fidelity here is quite remarkable. The author’s note, addressed “To anyone interested in putting on a production of this play” is normally the sort of thing I find compellingly hideous. (My thoughts on Bruce Norris’s anal obsession with people doing what he says are well documented.) However, Baker’s note, while making a similar request, seems to come from almost exactly the opposite direction. Where Norris says “don’t question my play”, Baker’s note is more like a plea for people to understand her good faith. It wouldn’t take a genius to infer that this note is probably a direct result of Peter Gill’s notably catastrophic misunderstanding of Baker’s earlier play Aliens at the Bush. Sentences like “Without its silences, this play is a satire, and with its silences it is, hopefully, a strange little meditation on theatre and life and death and the passing of time” and “I hope you will portray these characters with compassion. They are not fools” just seem to be missing the word “Peter” at the end of every line.

And, with an author’s note like that, it’s hard not to warm to the thing. Or at least to the impulses and intentions behind it. Although, at the same time, you also kind of notice that Chekhov it ain’t (Although doubtless Chekhov wrote similarly distressed notes to Stanislavsky, albeit the other way round: “Stan., this play is a goddamn satire. With all these silences you’re making it all sentimental. These characters are all fools, FFS! Yours in despair, Anton”).

I wonder if that’s a problem. I wonder if this demand for respect for the characters points to a certain lack of robustness about the situation of the play. Or perhaps it’s guilt. Baker’s guilt at having creating characters who could so easily be mistaken for the sorts of comic car crashes found in Untitled Matriarch Play. Part of me would really like Baker to see Frank Castorf’s angry, vicious, (and unendurable) five hour evisceration of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau! before she thinks she’s been badly served by a director (although, yes, there’s a massive difference between having a staging deliberately attack your play for political reasons and simply having it misunderstood).

So what to make of it all?

Well, hype can be a deadly thing. I already did an ‘apologising for/worrying about not liking a play as much as my peers piece’ in my review for Narrative, so I’m not going to re-tread old ground.

But, CMT has given me much cause to think again about the nature of internet hype. One thought which did occur is that the human animal is instinctively generous. If people really liked something, they tend to broadcast their approval long and loud to share their discovery with their friends. If they don’t really like something so much, then they tend to keep their mouths shut about it, not wanting to hurt the feelings of those involved or piss on the parade of those who liked it. At least in public. Unless they were mortally offended by something. So I wonder how accurate a reflection of the overall public mood this indisputable wave of good will toward CMT really is. Certainly the only person I knew at this afternoon’s matinee performance at the Royal Court’s new experimental off-site sauna agreed with me that it wasn’t really all that.

But hype also blunts the precision of the reaction. Did I “not like” Circle Mirror Transformation? Not a bit of it. I liked it just fine, really. I thought it was – in the main – very well acted and very well directed. I think I’d probably have also found lots about the script kind of admirable if I hadn’t had its virtues pre-praised to the skies for me.

“That’s why there are press nights, Haydon”. Well, no. That might have been an answer once. If you happened to be a critic who had no friends who ever went to previews and never spoke to anyone in the industry, then once upon a pre-internet time it might have been possible to go virgin-like into a production. But even that’s nonsense. Matt Trueman’s incredibly persuasive and totally charming print-media profile of CMT author Annie Baker for the FT a couple of weekends back would still have been knocking about beaming its positive vibes into the ether.

But there’s also the nature of the hype, of our the response to it. Which is to say, some hype is more equal than others. When the MSM lot come out of something predictably godawful, tailor-made to their baleful tastes it hardly feels like hype; it feels like the death-rattle of an obese dinosaur, to which: “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” feels like the only possible response.

When the hype comes from usually trusted friends whose similar(-ish) taste in theatre is probably how you met in the first place, then you worry more when you’re not really feeling it. Because, let’s be honest, the hype for CMT hasn’t been hectoring, or self-righteous, or preachy, or factional, or I-told-you-so, or point-making. It’s been good-natured wonderment, adoration and joy. And who wants to be the guy who isn’t on that train?

So, while I feel no compunction in writing savage reviews against the opinions of my senior colleagues, this sort of thing initially leaves me feeling a bit inward-looking and wondering what’s wrong with me. Did everyone else’s enthusiasm for CMT make it impossible for me to like it? I wouldn’t have said so. I’m pretty sure I’ve come late to other shows everyone else has already praised and still been able to like them (Rupert Goold’s Enron and Macbeth spring to mind).

But after the worrying about yourself (“What is wrong with me?” “Maybe I just hate people?”), a slightly toxic second phase turns up, where you just feel irritable with everyone who’s still insisting that the thing is still the second coming. The “What do you know, anyway?” phase. Is this review really a review of the play any more or a review of my colleagues’ Tweets (I’ve not read the actual reviews yet).

Ultimately, I think it’s a combination; a combination not helped along much by the conditions in which I saw it – sweltering heat and a matinee performance, meaning that the poor actors had another two-hour performance looming ahead of them while doing this show yesterday. (Also, spending the last ten weeks watching the Secret Theatre company not only doing the same sorts of drama exercises sometimes, but also watching a group of people all negotiating getting to know each other in a rehearsal room – and indeed only really seeing those people in the rehearsal room.)

I mean, the acting here really is very good. But it is still acting. Even quite demonstrative acting at times – although, what was remarkably good was the quality of the attention-paying: the bits where the actors were pretending to be their characters seeing something for the first time. The bits where people aren’t *on* are where all the best performance is.

Actually, when thinking about the performances, I could easily be seduced into writing a good five-hundred words on just the small intricate things that each performer brought into the room. The small winces that Danny Webb’s James makes, or the way his whole physicality notably altered when Theresa started flirting with him. Or how refreshing it was to see Fenella Woolgar not playing another of the uptight poshos she’s normally typecast as, and instead seeing her playing a complicatedly sexy American young woman (on that note, it’s also nice to see Danny Webb not playing the captain of a space ship for once). And the degree of compassion that she seemed to have invested in that character – again, a moment best typified in one scene where she’s just watching James and Marty playing Lauren’s parents fighting, and the look of concern on her face. Or the inner strength and deep breath-taking that Imelda Staunton brings to Marty. It’s one of those performances that’s so natural at times, that you forget that it’s remarkable that she’s doing it so well because it looks like she isn’t doing anything at all. Toby Jones’s Schultz is, for me, perhaps the most mannered – no, mannered is unfair – the most overtly amusing performance. Jones’s Schultz’s physical awkwardness – while not overtly unsympathetic to the character – does make him frequently the funniest thing on the stage, and so it feels a bit more telegraphed. Even though other people’s physical awkwardness in real life can be quite funny. Shannon Tarbet (who I was going to say is the only actor here I’ve never seen before, but who was apparently in Spur of the Moment) is, well, it’s a cliché to say “is a revelation” but, really, she is remarkable. Easily the best at the stillness and deadpannery (or perhaps its just a gift of a character in this respect), you get the sense that she’s possibly the performer on stage who’s had least to unlearn in order to achieve this level of natural-ness.

So, yes, the acting is good.

And the production as a whole is good. Chloe Lamford’s design is – well, it’s hard to know what’s Chloe Lamford’s design when we’re in a real room in a real building that already performs the same function as the room that the characters are in in the play, but if it extends to costumes (it probably does) then those are spot on. (especially Marty, whose abiding love of purple and magenta clothing over the six weeks could easily have tipped into Abigail’s Party-style character assassination by costume kitsch). The only small solecism is the dream catcher given by Schulz to Marty in Week Six, which takes the sole textual clue “I love the little purple – ” to be a bunch of purple feathers hanging off it – making it far and away the most broadly comic thing in the play – rather than, say, a particular purple stone/crystal in it. Tsk. But other than that small niggle, flawless.

Beyond that, there’s the slightly annoying presence of two different lighting states – although brought into the world of the play by there being a lighting board controlled by Marty. More annoyingly, there are also A Lot of Blackouts. In an air-conditioned room, I might have forgiven these (although they feed the structural problem with the piece), but yesterday, no, not so much.

Does writing down more or less everything I thought, wondered about, etc. constitute a review? I just don’t know any more. This probably needs a good edit and a through line. Still, if nothing else it’s a reasonably accurate record of my conflicted feelings about having misgivings about a play that everyone else (except Ian Shuttleworth) seems to think is the second coming, in which they are seeing things that I just couldn’t see.

It’s hard to pin down precisely why it didn’t quite work for me. I’m not actually absolutist about plays having to not be about people’s marital breakdowns or problems with self-esteem, although I’d rather if they were about those things, then I think it would be nice if those things were also looking outward. Except here I think they are looking outward, so that can’t be it. Perhaps it’s that I think they’re only looking outward a certain distance. They catch a certain way of seeing the world and yourself in it, but it’s a very small world, made only out of self-improvement and personal relationships.

Another, quite random thing that happened to me while watching the play was a curiosity about how it came into being. I suppose this came from a) Secret Theatre, but also b) watching the Anthony Neilson-led Collaboration project last week – especially E.V. Crowe’s piece set in a rehearsal room. If Annie Baker just locked herself in a room and made this up, then the intricacy and perfection of it is almost frustrating to me. Because, yes, it is brilliantly done, I’m not going to deny that, but she could have made this with some actors in a room in about three weeks flat. And, thanks to Secret Theatre and what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, I also missed the messiness that the not-single-voice vision brings to such work. The production doesn’t feel as a fraction as collaborative as a piece which might ultimately about the value collaboration perhaps usefully could.

So, yes. There we go. Because everyone else said it is about “so much more” I think I expected something like Chris Goode’s Longwave, which it ain’t, and ain't trying to be.

That said, I think it’s still bloody wonderful that perhaps the piece I thought about most when trying (and failing) to articulate why this hadn’t really done it for me was the Royal Court’s own Surprise Theatre offering Commonwealth.

For any theatre to be putting out and containing such an exciting dialectic (yeah, I went there), is surely an incredibly positive and healthy sign – even if I do wish that it was Commonwealth getting the four-week run and massive campaign of adulation.


Unknown said...

I've read it! Where is my medal? ;-)

Firstly, it's always difficult to respond to a review of something I've not actually seen myself. I just have to take your word for it, when you describe what happened on stage.

Secondly, I must admit I am a little wary of actors pretending to be actors on stage. This double inward gaze thing just never sits well with me. On the other hand, if you think about it, playing an actor is much like playing any other "real world character".

Oh, I don't know what I'm trying to say here.

I liked the play's title. That I did.

And it's nice to hear that actors who are often typecast get to use their other abilities and shine while doing it. That's always a nice surprise or discovery. (Which is why I prefer Hugh Grant in 'An Awfully Big Adventure' to almost any other role he's done since.)

Ultimately, perhaps it comes down to what one as an audience member wants theatre to be about. Political commentary, personal discovery, entertainment? Is a play interesting to watch because it has substance on a broader scale or because it resonates with something inside me? At what point does it just get tiring to watch other people act out the same questions and issues that I grapple with on a daily basis?

victorias alphabet soup said...

TL/DR. Didn't get a medal

Paul said...

Did you talk about 'what happens to hope...'? Seeing it tomorrow.

Anyway, I'm pretty much in the same camp - it was very good but....

The 'but' for me is because the response from reviewers (and theatre involved audiences) seems prompted by the play being a sort of pat on the head for them/us. Look at what we do, look at how illuminating it is etc. As such I look forward to seeing more of her work that avoids that setting.

I would have liked more challenge; oh, I don't know, the play and the response just seems a bit smug, middle class. Billington, bless him, even mentions it.