“…do you ever wonder … how many times your life is gonna totally change and then, like, start all over again?”
Circle Mirror Transformation opens with five people lying on the floor in subdued lighting, playing a counting game. They keep getting it wrong, accidentally talking over each other and having to re-start the game. It is the introductory meeting of an adult Creative Drama class, and the first of a number of exercises through which writer Annie Baker deftly explores themes of loneliness and new beginnings. The result is clever, funny and devastating.
Crafted to perfection, Circle Mirror is a very slow burn. Highly naturalistic exchanges are often halting and awkward and punctuated by extended silences. The reveals happen gradually and indirectly – through class activities designed to develop the participants’ empathy and imaginative self-expression. It has the feel of a scratch card; over the period of just under two hours, the drama games scratch away at the surface and, bit by little bit, reveal five very real people, each with their own back story of suffering, desire and aspiration.
As always with Annie Baker, the writing is a master-class of precision and sub-text – subtle, penetrating and profound. But it is the richness of the characters that animates the piece. Class teacher Marty (Amelia Bullmore) is a child of the 60s and devoted to encouraging all forms of creativity and personal growth. Warm and generous, she is beginning to feel tremors from cracks in her own past and present. Husband, James (Anthony Ofoegbu), is an idealist who has been trying to be a good husband and father but has lost something of himself in the process. Actress Theresa (Sian Clifford) has recently extricated herself from a toxic relationship and finds herself rebounding with fellow class-member Shultz, himself a reluctant recent divorcee. And in amongst these largely middle-aged participants with their complex personal histories, is Lauren – a sixteen-year old wannabe actress, hoping to land a leading role in her school’s forthcoming production of West Side Story.
The Creative Drama class takes place over a mere six weeks – a drop in the ocean in the context of a lifetime. And yet it feels like each character is at a personal crossroads, whether conscious or unconscious. The drama exercises enable each to see themselves from the outside, triggering a therapeutic process that is both deeply painful and potentially liberating.
Although written and performed with a very light touch and a great deal of humour, there are some shattering moments. Simple role-play simulations merge into confrontations which are disturbingly real and even a nonsense-word exchange becomes heavy with emotional significance. And as the games progress, relationships develop and rupture.
Bijan Sheibani’s direction is sensitive and under-stated, allowing Baker’s meticulous writing to work its magic, ably supported by a terrific cast. Con O’Neill’s shambling, gauche, painfully over-eager portrayal of Shultz is especially compelling, with emotional vulnerability starkly declared in his every movement. Yasmin Paige similarly makes brilliant but always subtle use of physicality to convey Lauren’s smouldering discomfort and frustration as well as her growing confidence as the weeks go by.
Circle Mirror Transformation is about the connections we make with people we meet (however fleetingly) and how they can change us. It digs deep and exposes those primal motivations – loneliness and hope. In the mirrored back wall of the set we are able to see every nuance of the characters’ expressions – but it is, I’m sure, no accident that we are also able to see ourselves.
Circle Mirror Transformation is on at HOME until 17 March. https://homemcr.org/production/circle-mirror-transformation/