When productions come into town that are written by rockstar playwrights like Annie Baker there is inevitably a buzz. A strong cast that includes an Olivier Award Winner, an up and coming director who has worked extensively at the National and the Young Vic and being staged at one of the city’s leading art venues, Home Manchester, you cannot help but be swept along by the frenzied anticipation of Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation.
Theatre is not unlike other art forms in regards to producing talented Tarantino-esque creatives. They garner the kind of following you’d expect from such artists with a trail of fanbois hanging on their every word and their latest output. Watching Baker’s fans is no different from watching the same kind of fans that drool over an upcoming Christopher Nolan film or those that wait excitedly for the next Beyonce album to drop.
It is no exaggeration to say that Annie Baker is – probably – in that league.
A multiple OBIE Award winner, Baker was also the recipient of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama and is considered to be one of the most talented and sought after playwrights of her generation. Walter Meierjohann, artistic director of Theatre at Home Manchester, has likened her to a modern day Chekov. High praise indeed. Last year she was named a MacArthur Fellow and was recognized primarily for:
“mining the minutiae of how we speak, act, and relate to one another and the absurdity and tragedy that result from the limitations of language.”
This sums up the spirit of Circle Mirror Transformation, as we see the lives of five characters who over the course of six weeks come together under the premise of participating in a weekly acting class, but through their interactions the audience is allowed to see the psyche of the human condition close up.
Bringing Baker’s acute observations of human relationships to life is a stellar cast and crew. Amelia Bullmore, Anthony Ofoegbu, Yasmin Page, Con O’Neill and Sian Clifford are like a expensively assembled Premier League squad. Super talented in many facets of theatre production from acting to writing. This fine team are sizzling and in perfect synchronicity when it comes to showcasing Baker’s machinations of the awkwardness of people relating to one another. If Bullmore and co are the equivalent of your Harry Kane and company, then director Bijan Sheibani is just as adept in the role of coach Mauricio Pochettino.
All these components are worthy of praise but they are designed for one sole purpose – and that is to allow Baker’s wonderful writing to take centre stage. The themes in Baker’s fabulous play have been seen before and human behavior has been put under the theatre spotlight in many a production. Yet, Baker has a tremendous talent to put a modern slant to these proceedings.
Her play has fun in alternating between characters, just enough to keep the audience second guessing. It’s a neat trick to put the perceptions of how we see people through the lens of how the characters perceive themselves from another’s point of view. Baker’s writing also wants to ponder the conclusions it so painstakingly crafts. The awkward silences. The long dramatic pauses. The lull between scenes are all designed to make sure the consequences of what has just been witnessed is not lost. This play wants you to feel. Baker’s play has much mirth and hilarity, but not through contrived humorous set pieces, but the laughter is drawn from the observational meanderings of people interacting together that we can empathise with.
Baker’s play reminds me of Kate Tempest’s breakout hit “Circles”, the similarities in the unconventional theme of beginnings and endings, the never ending loop to life that is less than perfect and summed up perfectly in Tempest’s lyrics:
“I go round in circles
Not graceful, not like dancers
Not neatly, not like compass and pencil
More like a dog on a lead, going mental”
Verdict: A stellar cast. Superb direction. A great production. Yet, it is the writing of Annie Baker that is truly the shining light in this wondrous offering. Her ability to accentuate the complexities of the characters and the human condition is as enthralling as it is captivating.