Friday 11 July 2014

Círculo de Transformação em Espelho – Sala Experimental, Teatro Muncial Joaquim Benite

[seen 09/07/14]

Publicity image -- will swap for production photo is any materialise

More or less exactly this time last year (13/07/13) Britain was in the grip of a heat-wave, the Royal Court had just got a new artistic director, and I was writing 2963 words about why I didn’t really like James MacDonald and Chloe Lamford’s production of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which I had watched in matinee at the Royal Court’s not-even-remotely-air-conditioned off-site space in Haggerston.

Fast forward a year and I’m sat in the Almada Festival’s tented club having just watched a semi-immersive, 1hr45, Portuguese-language version of the same play (and the temperatures outdoors here make Britain’s “heat-wave” feel like a Berlin winter. Mercifully, though, there’s air-con indoors). And finding myself more or less infinitely more charmed here than I was by the British première.

Two things stick out for me in that original review about what’s changed here. In my original review I noted:

“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. However, Baker’s note seems to come from almost exactly the opposite direction [to a comparable row featuring Bruce Norris]. Where Norris says ‘don’t question my play’, Baker’s note is more like a plea for people to understand her good faith.”

And: “the acting here really is very good. But it is still acting. Even quite demonstrative acting at times...”

I really loved seeing a production that *wasn’t* textually faithful. Firstly, I think it must have been cut. Secondly, while the pauses that Baker was imploring directors not to cut have probably pretty much disappeared, in this context, that’s good. Those pauses in the British version, I now realise, felt like horribly sign-posted emotional blackmail in a broad comedy. Baker writes it funny, writes pathetic characters (at least as the British version had it), and then tells us that we must, at all costs, be precious with them. No one in the audience is really laughing at anyone here. But I suspect that in translation, the odd cruelties that the text does to the characters have been erased. It’s probably too much to suggest that Portuguese is a more sincere, innocent language than English, but that’s sure how it felt. Everyone in this version of CMT seemed really on the level and would say the stuff about themselves that the script demands with complete sincerity and it was taken as such. But, as I say (often at the moment), I don’t speak Portuguese, so I also don’t know how much has been cut.

Other textual infidelities are as follows: I think the company presenting this must be some sort of young company. I don’t think anyone in that production was even as old as me (38), which, for a production where the oldest character is 60 and the youngest is 16, was kind of interesting. Annoyingly, I can’t tell if they were still playing the characters as those ages, just without “old person acting”, or whether we were expected to believe that these bright young things had had children and divorces, or, indeed, whether those details had been cut [I’ll ask]. (And, yes, bloody hell, once again English surtitles would have been useful.)

Semi-immersion! Yup. Rather than watching the play from a raked auditorium, we watched sat round the – alternately blackboard and mirrored-panelled – walls. On garden chairs (again!) or cushions/beanbags. *And* we could join in with *some* of the exercises. Again, thanks to the lack of any handle on the language (– don’t blame me, they invited me. Romania (and every other International Festival I’ve ever been to) has had English surtitles. I thought I’d be fine. Portuguese just isn’t a European language I speak. Understanding what felt like 85% of She She Pop’s show in German has at least stopped me feeling like a monolingual English thug –) I have no idea how this affected the painstakingly crafted original text, but I think we’ve established now that this production was way more robust, and less precious, than either the script or the British première. And, for my money, the “immersion” really worked. Or at least, it made the whole thing really interesting and different. It did also rebound badly on the actors, however. If they hadn’t used real people *as well* in the exercises, I think I’d have come away from this performance saying it was *really* well acted. As soon as you put people being real on the stage with the actors (shades of Tim Crouch’s Adler and Gibb. Again.) you suddenly see what laboured tricks and heavy underlining passes for credible acting. Oddly, it made me think more about the contrast with the British première (“...still acting. Quite demonstrative...”), with the thought, a) Jesus, our naturalism is *really* unnatural and overdone, and, b) Christ, could our casting have been any more signposty? On that score, even overlooking the fact that the cast were radically the “wrong” ages, they did at least just look like some people who had turned up rather than radiating the feeling of being deliberately hand-picked oddballs.

I guess the last thing that endeared this production to me more than the Brit.Prem. was the fact I couldn’t actually understand the small gripes about their lives that the characters spend their time letting slip. I think there was a sense in which the Portuguese cast also took the problems on board at a really different level to the one adopted by their British counterparts. Perhaps it’s cultural, but rather than being studies in embarrassment and crapness, the Portuguese characters seemed like straight-forward people who might actually be invested in their feelings without any ironic detachment. It made the whole thing feel infinitely less like an elaborate exercise in being told not to laugh at characters who have been written as comic caricatures. It’s interesting, by virtue of the translation, Baker’s script achieves the sincerity that it doesn’t actually contain in English.

No comments: