Gate Theatre, London – until 8 February 2020
A woman informs us that storytelling needs a sustained breath. She’s then interrupted by a crying baby, a young boy who wants her attention, and a husband who points out both but makes no attempt to help. The unnamed translator, who may or may not have lived in New York, now lives in Mexico City. Her days that – remembered or imagined – were once filled with reading and writing, nights out, casual sex and music, now consist of nappies, playtime and housework.
It’s never explicitly made clear if the story she is telling is something she experienced, or something she’s making up. Regardless, she relates it with convincing detail so it doesn’t really matter. What may be her past life is so different that it now seems fictional anyway, so the story she tells – about an obsession with obscure Mexican poet Gilberto Owen and her crusade to get his work translated – takes on a surreal, dream-like quality that often blurs with her domestic life. It is sometimes difficult to separate the two narratives that unfold over the course of this 90-minute adaptation, which makes the beginning of the play particularly muddled.
However, immediate impact lies in the clearly imbalanced responsibility for domestic labour in this particular household. The Husband (Neil D’Souza) works away at his architectural model for a house he’s designing in Philadelphia, too busy to soothe a crying infant or play with his older child. The Woman (Jimena Larraguivel) does it, and everything else, taken for granted by her partner. It is infuriating in and of itself, but even more so as a representation of systemic misogyny that oppresses women who are mothers, and disregards their achievements and autonomy. No wonder she is so determined to share this story of her life before a family – she is more than just a caretaker and an enabler of other people’s interests. She has her own talents, and a drive to share beautiful poetry with the world that has otherwise been forgotten.
As these past and present stories progress and weave in and out of each other, we see passion and anger gradually take hold and further fragment both narratives. The Woman eventually reaches two distinct – and understandable – breaking points, because the men in her life are exploitative and disregard her work and interests. These are relatable, recognisable and infuriating – many womxn who have dated or married men have endured similar, and felt the same at numerous times throughout our lives. It is both difficult and comforting to watch.
Her stories are punctuated by sad songs played by the Musician (Anoushka Lucas), who also embodies a friend from NY. The ballads mourn a life now long-gone and the labour of women that is taken for granted. Folksy and funereal, they are also a soothing juxtaposition to the chaos onstage. Her son’s toys are everywhere, as are her husband’s work materials. In her story, Gilberto Owen becomes a prominent character that consumes the translator. There is no physical evidence of the woman other than herself, but her soul reaches us through these songs despite the men who are desperate to extinguish its flame.
Whilst the script demands unwavering focus and attention in order to not get lost – this is not a play to watch if you’re tired or looking for mindless entertainment – women’s individuality, voice and their suppression by patriarchal systems are profoundly resonant. This isn’t a neat and tidy play, but neither are the collage of roles and responsibilities that make up a womxn.