Review by Elizabeth Mistry
After reading Faces in the Crowd by the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli (in the superb English translation by Christina MacSweeney) I had to go and sit very quietly for a while.
I couldn’t imagine talking to anyone immediately afterwards because this slim but devastating volume demands so much of the reader. It is the sort of book that gnaws away at you long after you’ve reached the end
Set between Mexico City and New York, it was also not something which immediately seemed to lend itself to adaptation for the stage, however, in the hands of director Ellen McDougall and her assistant Maria Jose Andrade, it turns out that this tale of a young writer, who feels profoundly that her life has not – since she married and had children – worked out as she had hoped, is surprisingly well suited for the theatre – especially one as intimate as The Gate.
The main character’s past lives and loves come back to haunt her. Or maybe she has called them back to populate the book she is trying to write in between nappy changes, bottle feeds and endless requests to play hide and seek.
Her life choices – and the architectural model her husband is so engrossed in that he fails to take on any of the parental duties she might have expected to share – taunt her too alongside the ghosts of the other largely forgotten writers she struggles to champion such as Ines Arredondo and Gilberto Owen who was briefly linked to the Harlem Renaissance.
As time, place and memories shift, the writer/mother/wife/literary prankster – played here by the excellent Mexican actress Jimena Larraguivel – becomes more and more encumbered by the multiplicity of roles she is expected, as a working woman, wife and mother to juggle.
Rarely has the warts and all life of a working mother been so well represented on the stage – and so well served by designer Bethany Well’s sparse set which, like Luiselli’s novela, becomes increasingly cluttered with the detritus of life.
Larraguivel gives a tour de force performance, being on stage for almost the entire evening. In the confines of The Gate, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, some might find the intensity of her characters too close for comfort. Others may admire the ease with which she shapeshifts – and enjoy the liquid refreshments on offer.
MacDougall’s assured direction means Larraguivel and the supporting cast (Neil D’Souza as the husband, Anoushka Lucas who, as well as playing the friend, plays a fine acoustic version of ‘Downtown Train’ and the engaging young Juan-Leonardo Solari playing the son) are more than up to the job of bringing this challenging work from the author of last year’s Lost Children Archive to the stage.
And while this production perhaps leaves more questions unanswered, that only reminds us of the need to champion these sorts of plays. The ones that don’t always leave us with a song in our heart and a nice warm glow, that ones that only fringe venues seem to be able to do. It is a reminder of the power and immediacy of theatre and how important it is that we ensure small companies – and writers – continue to dream ambitiously.
Faces In the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
Adapted by Ellen McDougall and Christina MacSweeney
Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, London
Until February 8th 2020
Tickets from £12.00 (a limited number of tickets may be available to those aged under 30 at £5.00 on the day from 6.30pm)
For more information call box office on 020 7229 0706 (open 10am and 6pm Monday to Friday) or www.gatetheatre.co.uk
Audio described evening on February 6th.
The theatre is above a pub and there is a staircase to reach the lobby from street level. It is not currently accessible to wheelchair users or anyone with severe mobility issues.