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

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.