Writer: Valeria Luiselli
Translator: Christina MacSweeney
Director and adaptor: Ellen McDougall
Shots of Tequila offered at the ticket desk give a strong clue as to where the show inside is going to take us. Faces in the Crowd is an adaptation by the Gate Theatre’s Artistic Director, Ellen McDougall, of the 2011 novel Los Ingrávidos by Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli. Its primary setting is Mexico City.
The central character, known simply as “the woman”, is a writer, played with an air of fateful resignation by Jimena Larraguivel. Her home is infested with mosquitos and cockroaches. She lives there with her husband (Neil D’Souza), an architect who is working on plans for a house in Philadelphia and possibly on a life with another woman, her playful young son (Santiago Huertas Ruiz at this performance) and a newborn baby daughter. She develops her stories, relating them to us, but is distracted repeatedly by the pestering boy, the crying baby and power blackouts.
Domestic tensions give the play its structure, climaxing with a lot of props getting smashed, but it is the themes explored in the woman’s stories that provide its heart. We are taken backwards and forwards in time and location, real life intertwines with fiction and the living interact with the dead. As everything becomes a blur in her head, the woman questions whether she or anyone else is more than merely an anonymous face in the crowd. She implores the audience to answer when she asks whether anyone can really see her.
Designer Bethany Wells fills the oblong space with a long table which is extended during the performance, eventually becoming an elevated stage. This helps to give McDougall’s carefully paced production a surreal feel. A musician (Anoushka Lucas) plays small roles in the stories, while she strums her guitar and sings Tom Waits’ Downtown Train, adding to the mystical, dreamlike quality. To a degree, we become mesmerised by the language and the images, without ever becoming involved properly in the drama.
McDougall’s vision of this novel forming the basis for a work for theatre is admirably ambitious, but it is not easy for an audience to grapple with it. The family drama does not have sufficient substance or clarity to really engage us and prepare us to be taken along with the woman’s flights of imagination. In part due to this, the stories become blurred to us long before they are blurred in the head of their writer.
At 80 minutes without an interval, the play is not overlong, but it is overcrowded with vague ideas, which may project themselves more clearly from the pages of a novel than from the stage of a theatre. Perhaps a few more Tequilas could help.
Runs until 8 February 2020