Writer: Annie Baker
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Reviewer: Lizz Clark
It has been said that films about actors and acting are likely to be lauded at the Oscars, from Argo to La La Land. Perhaps Circle Mirror Transformation is the theatrical equivalent: Annie Baker’s play, which follows a six-week drama course held at a Vermont community centre, certainly garnered praise from critics when it premiered Off-Broadway and won several Obie Awards. It was staged in London in 2013 with a cast including Toby Jones and Imelda Staunton, and now it comes to HOME directed by Bijan Sheibani.
Amelia Bullmore is Marty, the hippie group leader who encourages each of her four students to open up through a series of drama exercises. They practice storytelling; they pretend to be trees; they lie on the floor breathing deeply and counting to ten. Middle-aged divorcé Schulz, played by a pitiful Con O’Neill, keeps himself closed off at first. Yasmin Paige’s Lauren, a quiet, serious teenager, eventually blurts out that she doesn’t see the point of it all. But as the group learn to trust each other, connections develop and secrets are shared.
Throughout, we’re confined to the community hall. Designer Samal Blak, who spent some of his childhood in Vermont, has created a set that feels comfortingly small and old-fashioned – or is it oppressively so? It’s the perfect setting for a play in which the focus of our interest is solely within and between the five actors. Instead of windows to the outside world, the hall is lined with mirrors, reflecting everything back inwards. Even the door does not lead directly out, showing us only a glimpse of corridor. What lies beyond these walls – the small town about which we hear little – is presumably just as confining.
In as far as there is a plot here, it’s the developing tangle of emotion between the characters, which rises to the surface in waves. Baker’s short scenes are by turns laugh-out-loud funny and cringingly awkward; her naturalistic style means we get only glimpses of each character’s murky depths. Yet Shibani’s deft direction of this talented cast ensures that it’s always compelling, even when not much is ostensibly happening. We’re drawn in by the appealingly subtle, and realistically awkward, moments of connection between the characters: vivacious former actress Teresa tries to tell a story, but forgets her point; James, Marty’s husband, improvises an emotional scene a little too accurately.
It’s this over-investment in the acting exercises that starts to unpick each character at the seams. Sian Clifford as Teresa is fascinating to watch as her insecurities peak in a lapse of judgement, then collapse into the subsequent humiliation. Bullmore gives us a teacher who is carefully holding it all together, her control starting, barely, to slip as the group dynamics show signs of strain. She’s matched in her restraint by Anthony Ofoegbu as James, whose easygoing masculinity hides a deep-down struggle with fear and anger.
If you can stand the awkward silences, and aren’t frustrated by just how little actually happens, it’s hard not to be drawn in by these vulnerable, flawed people who tentatively open up to each other in pursuit of truth and connection. By allowing themselves to be deeply seen, each of them tries to escape from the quiet desperation of their small-town lives. In the end, perhaps our selves are inescapable, but, as the final scene makes clear, openness and vulnerability can transform us – for better or worse.
Runs until 17th March 2018 | Image: Marc Brenner