I’m trying to understand this play conceptually and I’m trying to understand this play emotionally. On both counts, I’m slightly stumped.
Selina Fillinger’s Faceless is based on a real case of a suburban American teen who was radicalised online, converted to Islam and was at the point of moving to Syria via Turkey when she was arrested – certainly a pertinent narrative. The four-week run at Finsbury Park’s Park Theatre will be accompanied by an unusually packed schedule of free talks, which, considering that this is the European Premiere of American playwright Fillinger’s debut play and that it was brought to the UK through crowdfunding, is commendable.
There’s an odd feeling, however, that at the core of this play is something hard and heavy and lumpy that we never really get to see; a more affecting play lurks somewhere inside this one. We dance around the periphery of a story, that I realised, eventually, wasn’t the one being told. Or maybe it was just being obscured by other layers of narrative.
Faceless’ structure is bitty – some very short, almost cinematic scenes and later longer, more drawn out ones. After a while, it’s a little disorientating, which, under Prav MJ’s direction, works to its advantage. Then there’s the fact that it centres on a court case (the projected images of offices on the back wall are too crudely literal as indicators of location).
As I’m not a fan of all the crime drama malarkey, I often feel it needs to justify itself. Faceless doesn’t really. It feels like a series of very interesting and difficult questions relying on the in-built dramatic arc of the courtroom to carry its story forwards. This makes it easy to lose track of the most interesting questions raised, which have nothing to do with the courtroom at all.
There’s Claire Fathi, for example, the French-Iranian (Iranian-French?) prosecution lawyer brought onto the case to be a “likeable” Muslim voice. From the very beginning she questions whether this case is just going to be one of another white girl, Susie Glenn, getting preferential treatment because she’s white – any other Muslim woman would have been made to remove her hijab in jail, for instance. But she’s also not suggesting that they should remove women’s hijabs. So what does she want? (No doubt to not be in a position where these constructed dichotomies are the only things to choose between).
Claire also questions whether Susie is Muslim at all – what right does she have when she converted and pledged allegiance to ISIS on Twitter? Paige Round is stunning in the role, convincingly navigating the knots that the justice system and society force her character into. (An interesting decision also to cast a white-passing Claire as a half-Iranian, hijab-wearing, Muslim American). As her big moments come thick and fast, it feels like she really wakes the rest of the cast up.
Faceless becomes easier to understand it if I let go of the idea that this is Susie’s story, that of the jailed teen who got engaged to an ISIS fighter over Facebook. I want to understand her better, though. I feel like I’m getting closer to that hard, lumpy core beneath it all, whose weight I can feel pulling on the fabric of this play.
I start to question what the people around me will take away. And I start to worry a little. A man just had a hearty premature laugh when prosecution lawyer Scott Bader says sincerely, “No wonder the Middle East is such a shitshow.” More people are laughing now. I’m not. Claire rebuts later on: “My point, before you started vomiting colonialism everywhere…” My mind becomes all exclamation-mark emojis. A few laughs for this one, but I’m already filing it away for future use. I wonder if anyone else is.
I don’t laugh at Scott’s sexual harassment even if he does get called out, repeatedly. I notice when he lists ‘African’ among ‘British’ and ‘Chinese’ as though it were a country. I find the character grating and abhorrent, which I’m certain is intended, but, also, he still gets the most laughs. And they’re not self-conscious ones. I’m not sure how this could be satirical when it’s just a mirroring of the world that’s entertaining people. And not being sure is making me feel uncomfortable. I wonder if anyone else is.
There are some incisive and brilliant lines, and there’s a real delicacy in conveying the nuts and bolts of the different experiences of the two female characters. Claire feels particularly real and Susie gets a little lost in all the other voices, but shines through in her solo scenes. The topic is an important one, and it’s related with confidence. But the production feels distancing and a-theatrical. I realise that the characters hardly ever look at each other when they talk. I wonder if a stronger focus on the two women who are its core would have done more to summon my emotions, and to experience this not as something that is happening to other people, but as something that is happening to us.
Faceless is at the Park Theatre until May 12th. For more details, click here.