“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.
“Radical, bold, political, funny, scary, shocking, moving – a truly transformational night at the theatre”
‘Mephisto [A Rhapsody]’ is a vital piece of theatre for our times. Everyone needs to see this play. This French text, by Samuel Gallet, adapted from the novel ‘Mephisto’ by German Klaus Mann, effortlessly translated into English by Chris Campbell, has multiple layers of European history behind it, taking an overtly political stance on the contemporary cultural moment. The Gate Theatre has produced a piece that majestically puts its ‘Manifesto For Our Future’ into practice – is this now the most exciting theatre in London?
Gallet’s play follows the trajectory of Mann’s original novel fairly closely, with some crucial alterations. In a fictional provincial town, Balbek Theatre and its company are struggling to find relevance in turbulent political times. The far-right Front Line is on the rise, skirmishes are taking place in migrant camps, pigs-heads are being left outside their front door. Almost oblivious to the looming threat of fascism, company actor Aymeric Dupré (a sensational Leo Bill), all vanity and self-doubt, has his eyes on stardom.
Rather than selling his soul to the Nazi’s though, Gallet’s version of Hendrik Höfgen sells his soul to apathy. He just doesn’t care. When the right-wing actor Michael (a terrifying Rhys Rusbatch) turns against his company members, Aymeric only thinks about himself – and leaves for the capital. His career jets off, but the human, moral cost is clear.
Campbell’s translation is spot on, with contemporary, flowing language whilst keeping the usefully vague geography of the piece. But this production is so much more than the text. A post-interval addition told by Anna-Maria Nabirye (“the only black actor in the show”) interrogates our conceptions of race in theatre, and even the Gate Theatre isn’t left off the hook. One of the startling things about this production is the way it uses a story about actors to provoke theatres, theatre-goers and creatives into political action. We could be apathetic, we could do another Chekhov, or we could try and change the way our audiences think, feel and respond to the world around them. Are they preaching to the converted? Possibly. But how often do you go to theatre and leave actually wanting to DO something?
Basia Binkowska’s design keeps the backstage onstage, with lighting desk and costume rail visible until the surprising and tender ending takes us back in time to Klaus Mann’s hotel room. A golden fun-house mirror makes up the back wall of the stage, offering the audience distorted reflections of themselves and the actors on stage. Kirsty Housley has directed a company where there are no weak links. The action is kept simple, the audience frequently directly addressed, the text divided cleverly between actors/narrators. Housley also uses space masterfully, expansive gaps between characters as well as closeted crowds in ways that make the empty stage seem anything but.
I have slight reservations about the ending of the play, which doesn’t add much to the two hours of theatre before, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the power of this production. ‘Mephisto [A Rhapsody]’ is something special. Radical, bold, political, funny, scary, shocking, moving – a truly transformational night at the theatre.