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Circle Mirror Transformation: Wonderful presentation of the before and after of theatre at the Gate

Theatre: Róisín McBrinn creates magnificent Irish production of Annie Baker’s sublime play

Circle Mirror Transformation

Gate Theatre, Dublin

When it comes to drama teachers, the word “eccentric” easily gets mentioned, as their methods haven’t always been straightforward: the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski likened his rehearsal process to a kind of psychotherapy; the students of Stanislavski’s first acting studio were sent to live and work as farmers. Can any of what they were doing be considered art-making?

There’s a moment in Annie Baker’s sublime play – a belated Irish premiere of the ground-breaking American playwright’s work – when a young student asks her teacher, “Are we going to be doing any real acting”? Their drama class involves the usual ensemble-building exercises that easily seem unconventional: the absurd chaos of people running around playing “explosion tag”; the dramatically random improvisations of the “circle mirror transformation” game. The student had been expecting the art of performance to finally begin when they start working from a playscript. “We are acting,” insists the teacher Marty, played with soft assurance by Niamh Cusack.

Her teaching methods are certainly questionable. These weekly gatherings of strangers, in a community centre in a New England town, begin with Marty leaving her introduction to someone else: her husband, James (a discreetly excellent Ristéard Cooper), who is also a student. As he stumbles through the monologue, it’s unclear whether Marty is using her exercises to exploit others (“I am a great stepmother,” she has him say) or if she’s demonstrating theatre’s capacity for people to tell others’ stories.

The latter can be enthralling. During a game where Schultz – a fortysomething civilian attending theatre classes for the first time – watches the story of his life being performed by another student, he, in Marty Rea’s moving performance, is aglow with excitement, as if recognised in a way he’s never been before. In her depiction of him, the shy performer – a breakthrough performance by Hazel Doupe – is gently encouraging (“I’m really nice to everyone”).


As weeks pass, there are glimpses of disharmony, of awkward run-ins during class breaks. The dynamic between James, haunted by a past of abuse and addiction, and Marty, who is attracted to theatre as “non-traditional healing”, becomes unsettlingly inconsistent. Schultz, a divorcee who has become smitten with another student (a sharp Imogen Doel), is left resentful and hurt. Furthermore, the classes seem to lose their boundaries. (“I want you to write down a secret you’ve never ever told anyone,” says Marty!)

All the time, people say about art, “It changed my life.” But how often do we hear someone distinguish what was different before and after? In a breathtaking coda, Baker’s students imagine their lives long after the class ends, speculating the transformation it will leave. “Do you ever wonder how many times your life is going to totally change and then start all over again?” asks someone. Touchingly, in director Róisín McBrinn’s traverse staging for the Gate Theatre, resembling a rehearsal room dragged into the middle of an auditorium, an audience is allowed to acknowledge each other across the room, as if to say, “This is why we come here.”

Circle Mirror Transformation is at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, until Sunday, June 30th

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture