Ellen McDougall directs her vivid adaptation of Valeria Luiselli’s dazzlingly original debut novel Faces in the Crowd, a bold and playful multi-layered story about identity, poetry, and nationality.

The cast includes Jimena Larraguivel (TV’s Apple Tree Yard/ RSC’s Day of the Living) as The Woman, Neil D’Souza (Beginners/ TV’s Humans) as Husband, Anoushka Lucas (Jesus Christ Superstar), as The Musician and Juan-Leonardo Solari and Santiago Huertas Ruiz as The Boy.

Faces in the Crowd is at The Gate Theatre 16th January to 8th February 2020.

You’re directing your own adaptation of Faces in the Crowd, what can you tell us about it?

Faces In The Crowd is a novel by Valeria Luiselli, which I have adapted and directed.  It introduces us to the mind of a Mexican writer. She is a wife and a mother, living in Mexico City with her family, and she is telling us the story – her story – of her past life in New York City. In that past life, she discovers, and becomes obsessed with a Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen, who lived in the same building as her in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. In him, she finds common ground, and a feeling of a life she could have lived.

But as she tries to tell her story, the reality of her family life begins to interrupt and fold into her story. As her marriage falls apart, she loses her grip on reality, her memories and her imagination.

What attracted you to Valeria Luiselli’s debut novel for an adaptation?  

When I read Faces In The Crowd I felt an instant attraction to its content and form. I was moved by the story of a woman working out who she is in the present, and how to reconcile those things against her former selves and memories. I was also excited about the form and how a story (or multiple overlapping stories) told in fragments could come to life on stage in a live setting. I’m interested in how and why we tell stories, and how often the existing structures we use can trap us, and how new structures can help us find new ways of seeing ourselves. I felt Valeria’s novel perfectly encompassed this for me.

What was the biggest challenge in adapting this novel?

The novel is made up of fragments of text, told in short bursts, which interweave the three different storylines of the woman’s present, past, and Gilberto Owen’s life. This fragmented form is one of the things that most excited me when I read the book, but also presents a challenge, because the story isn’t told in a linear narrative. It reflects the creative process, drawing on multiple references, images, experiences and moments to try to understand the world and her experience of it.

The story is one of a woman trying to tell her story, finding her voice, while coming to terms with who she is as a mother and the breakdown of her marriage, so there are very intense emotions running through it, which also presents a challenge – trying to hold and contain the breakdown of a persons’ mind, a descent into a kind of madness, or out of body experience, whilst also relying on that character as the narrator of the story – so it’s a continuous balance of her losing her grip on reality, whilst also driving the narrative forwards.

The writing in the novel feels very immediate, live and present – so it has been really joyful to translate that into a live experience on stage.

Why did you choose to direct as well as adapt, what opportunities does that give you?

The Gate is and has always been a place to make bold and imaginative theatre that defies the norm. I’ve always felt that very keenly when thinking about programming both for my shows and others in the season. I have previously adapted work for the stage at the Gate, opening my first season with The Unknown Island by José Saramago, and I find that working with a text that isn’t a dramatic text creates lots of space for a creative process. So, when I read Faces In The Crowd and felt such a connection to the writing, I was excited to adapt the text myself. I don’t work in isolation though-it has been a collaborative process right from the start including my associates at the gate Rosie Elnile Anthony Simpson pike and Jude Christian, Yasmin Hafesji and Maria Jose, Joel Horwood and Hannah Ringham who has been with me throughout rehearsals.

What would you say to anyone thinking of coming to see Faces in the Crowd?

I was so excited to programme Faces In The Crowd because the story is so rich and multi-layered that there really is something in it for everyone. It offers a tapestry of a life, and an attempt to reconcile and make sense of that life in a real and honest way. It holds so many questions about marriage, and parenthood, and how to hold the multiple parts of you, your presents and pasts, and make sense of who you are now, in this moment. I think that the attempt to capture that on stage and work that out as a room full of people is beautiful, not neat or finished, but true. So, anyone coming to see it will feel part of that experience – plus there’s an opportunity to sample some Mexican tequila!

Main Image: Ellen McDougall c. Ellie Kurtz

Greg is an award-winning writer with a huge passion for theatre. He has appeared on stage, as well as having directed several plays in his native Scotland. Greg is the founder and editor of Theatre Weekly

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