Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation is every inch a modern classic

A wise first choice for the Royal Court's new artistic director Vicky Featherstone.

Circle Mirror Transformation
The Royal Court at the Rose
Lipman Building, London N1

Within a year of its New York premiere, Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation was the second-most-produced play in the US. On its first outing in Britain – as the first choice for the Royal Court’s new artistic director, Vicky Featherstone – it looks every inch a modern classic.

Baker shows us snapshots from a six-week community drama-therapy class; staccato scenes punctuated by blackouts. We see five people playing games – counting collectively, chattering in gibberish, being trees and other inanimate objects. We glimpse their breaktime small talk: a snatched flirtation here, a morsel of unsolicited lifestyle advice there. There’s little more than that – the weeks pass, their counting improves – but two hours later, five lives have been flipped on their axes.

The class is led by Marty (Imelda Staunton), a small-town would-be spirit guide of sorts, who speaks with the regulated, cotton-wool calm of a professional therapist. Her husband, James (Danny Webb), is taking part – not for the first time and not ungrudgingly. By the first session’s first break, he’s already raised the possibility of usurpation by quietly undermining her instructions.

The paying participants are Schultz (Toby Jones), a carpenter still reeling from his divorce a year earlier; Theresa (Fenella Woolgar), a recently retired, thirtysomething actress hung up over a controlling ex-boyfriend; and Lauren (Shannon Tarbet), a teenager with ambitions to become an actress (or a vet) and a difficult home life.

Baker’s great skill is to let these background biographies come out in the wash. Her exposition is feather-light. This is a play in which who gets asked to embody a favourite tree speaks volumes; in which Schultz describing Theresa’s recent “toxic relationship” tells you as much about him as it does about her. Baker’s characters betray themselves through unthinking word selection, through reflex reactions and in unregarded moments. It’s cringe comedy with a huge heart – sometimes hilariously deadpan, sometimes deeply tender – and it’s satisfying to watch. You’re forced into (and rewarded for) forensic attention.

The plot happens in the play’s peripheries. The room temperature changes. Group dynamics shift. Five strangers start to trust each other and deep-buried secrets float to the surface. Schultz and Theresa begin and end the sort of ill-judged, impulsive affair of two lonely souls colliding. James’s and Marty’s marriage starts to show its splinters. Lauren, who just wants to do some “proper acting”, learns a bit about life, a bit about herself and a bit about people. Baker’s life-changing moments aren’t lightning bolts; they’re more like longshore drift.

These are wounded individuals. Life has made them brittle and they’ve accumulated hang-ups and insecurities with age. If each of them feels invisible, Marty’s class lets them feel seen again. That fosters a new confidence but there’s a delicate balance between being seen and performing, between presence and ego. (The play’s title is significant: it refers to a call-and-response exercise intended to improve listening and foster togetherness but it elevates one individual and becomes a conch that gets snatched.)

These games, all about sharing and selfrevelation, have an offstage impact, too. Their side effects are both positive and negative. One character telling another’s life story can throw up some hard-to-take home truths. Overall, Marty is not in total control. Seemingly innocuous exercises have the dangerous, unknown potential of a Ouija board.

This is what makes the play far more than a two-hour diversion. Baker is aiming at something universal: the vulnerable individual in the big, bad world. It’s a play that leaves you determined to care more and to care better; to check your ego and donate your time and energy to others. Because, for all that Marty and the others mess up, time and again, they mean well and they keep trying. Kind hearts win out in the long run. Baker ends with a coup de théâtre of breathtaking simplicity: a drama exercise imagining a possible future cross-fades into a hopeful reality.

James Macdonald’s skilful production does all that’s asked of it. The text does most of the work but it could so easily have been ruined. Baker prefaces the script with a plea to “treat these characters with compassion. They are not fools.” The cast members respect that challenge and are impressive. Staunton treads a delicate line between martyr and monster without seeking our approval or castigation. Jones wears every half-thought on his ragged face, awkwardness and agony in equal measure. Tarbet plays Lauren with an astonishing stillness: a surface on which the rest of the play is reflected. In short, go – and if you can’t, demand the Royal Court extend it until you can. If that doesn’t work, just read it. Baker’s writing is that good.

The play runs until 3 August

Rehearsals for Circle Mirror Transformation at the Royal Court. Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey/Royal Court 2013.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.