Faces in the Crowd
Reviewed – 21st January 2020
“a stunning exploration of narrative infidelity, space, and the way in which stories shape our view of the world, and of ourselves”
If a baby’s crying in the room next door, how can you sit down and write? When children’s toys litter the ground, and the only desk is taken by your husband, how can you find space to be creative? If fiction resembles life too closely, how can you be sure what’s real and what’s not? Ellen McDougall’s new play, at the theatre she artistic directs, is a stunning exploration of narrative infidelity, space, and the way in which stories shape our view of the world, and of ourselves.
Adapted from Valeria Luiselli’s 2011 novel, published in an English translation by Christina McSweeney in 2014, three interweaving narratives form a vibrant tapestry on stage. The Woman, played with vigour and conviction by Jimena Larraguivel, attempts to tell her audience a story. A nagging child (played alternatively by Juan-Leonardo Solari and Santiago Huertas Ruiz) interrupts with comments and questions. A baby’s cries force her away, leaving little notes for her husband to read out at her command. Upsetting the flow of her tale, these moments of male pressure remind of the ease at which women’s creative potential can be disturbed. One long table dominates the stage. At first, The Husband (Neil D’Souza) sits here to work. It’s only after The Woman befriends a neighbour, The Musician (Anoushka Lucas) that she finds a table, and space, of her own to write. Working as a translator in Mexico City, she discovers a book of letters by Mexican poet Gilberto Owen that so reflect her situation she feels compelled to get them published. As her attempts hit various stumbling blocks, Owen comes to haunt her present, causing her grip on what’s real and what’s not to slowly dissolve.
Larraguivel is a dominating force in this production. Holding the audience in her grip throughout, this is her story to tell. Direct address keeps us hooked, and intriguing moments of introduction – “This is what I looked like smoking a cigarette” – underscore how narration and presentation are two very different beasts. Unafraid to be messy, Bethany Wells’ design brings in the bright colours that invoked Mexico for English people like me. George Dennis’ sound design set an immediate sense of time and place in brief moments, and the songs provided by Lucas throughout are simply gorgeous.
McDougall’s collage-like adaptation interlaces the narratives neatly. The theatre’s programme and posters credit the original author and translator prominently, fitting in a play where translation becomes a key aspect. In fact, the whole market of Latin American translation is almost mocked. What is it that English-speaking audiences seek from these texts? What do we expect? As The Woman asks, who is made invisible when we experience these stories?
If Faces in the Crowd has a flaw, it feels a little too long, the text not always gripping when it should, and at times the narrative strand a little unclear. But perhaps that’s the point. Like the house in which The Woman writes, telling stories can get messy. Find your space, and fight for it.
Reviewed by Robert Frisch
Photography by Ellie Kurttz
Faces in the Crowd
Gate Theatre until 8th February
Previously reviewed at this venue: