I’m walking down the street in a pleasant upmarket neighborhood and as I walk I have to tread carefully, as the ground beneath my feet is covered in often quite deep cracks as a result of a huge earthquake which is said to have taken place 30 years ago. Such is the level of detail you find everywhere you look in what must be by far the most ambitious and fully-realised piece of immersive theatre yet produced. While companies such as Punchdrunk, Secret Cinema and You Me Bum Bum Train may have awed us in the past with their transformations of abandoned post office sorting offices and the like into exquisite dream palaces of theatrical imagination, ‘Mexico City’ is on an entirely different scale.
Something that strikes one again and again throughout this experience (in truth, more of an installation than anything resembling a play) is the sheer number of actors and or/other visitors (it’s not always easy to tell who’s who). On both of my visits (one trip is certainly nowhere near enough) there seemed to be a cast of literally millions. Even someone entirely jaded with the by now often very standardised rituals and tricks of promenade or participative theatre could not be anything other than blown away by the astonishing artificial world that has been brought into being.
Despite the epic scale, this is no Wagner opera. Visitors are in no danger of losing the plot since the action, which erupts non-sequentially like any number of volcanoes of all shapes and sizes, means that there are an infinite amount of threads, so the spectator is left to wander around at leisure and weave his or her own narrative. Thus no two experiences could ever possibly be the same. The production is of such a vast size that any meaningful opportunity for the casual punter to work out what the hell is going on flies out of the window, but the great pleasure of the production — chasing round and attempting to fit the various pieces together — never feels like a chore, and everywhere you turn your senses are constantly assaulted by fresh stimuli, whether it be the sight of someone standing in the traffic juggling fire, the bursts of mariachi and norteño music assailing you as you stroll down the street, or the intoxicating smell of sliced chillis mixed with arrachera cooking on a neighbourhood grill.
Indeed the physical extent of the show is such that not just walking is involved. Being part of and struggling against the traffic is part of the frustration and therefore part of the fun. Anyone who has been to the Glastonbury Festival will know just what I mean — you set off in good time to reach a particular attraction, but along the way find so many unexpected and delightful things happening that whatever you intended to see quickly gets forgotten. My advice for first-time visitors is: forget about Uber and Google Maps — let yourself go with the flow instead. You will soon find yourself feeling like less of a spectator or even a voyeur, more of a flâneur. The sensation is rather like watching a blue whale glide by an inch from your face, simply too big to take in, but even this does not begin to do justice to the level of detail involved.
The audience is also encouraged to investigate and interact with their surroundings. A large part of the pleasure of the production lies in what you might discover if you have a root round amongst the almost insanely detailed sets: the markets, the parks, the squares and pretty much everything else that the human mind can conceive of and cities can provide. There is even a full-scale metro system, which also functions as a chaotic underground shopping centre, with all manner of goods on sale, often at ear-splitting volume. It is particularly by poking your nose into the hidden recesses of the installation that you will be able to make the most of your visit: a careful inspection of a mere one hundred square metres of the set will yield much more in the way of meaningful insights into modern urban existence than a whole lifetime of visits to the National Theatre or the White Cube.
For those who choose to investigate it there is a hugely complex and thrilling backstory written into the production, involving former civilisations, floating cities, and colonial invasions followed by bloody struggles for independence and violent revolutions — once again, the intricacy of these elements is mind-bending. There are even murky rumours about recent presidents murdering their wives and intriguing tales of high-level corruption involving government contracts and bloodthirsty drug gangs. You might even be able to ask some of the characters about such things — although the show is said to be largely improvised, the actors have been very well prepared in terms of their knowledge of the world they are depicting. Although other reviewers have expressed some disquiet about the occasionally menacing nature of their interactions with the characters I found them to be very cordial at all times. Strike up a conversation and you may find yourself being led to a part of the set that few get to see. 66 Minutes in Damascus it is certainly not!
For me, the best moments were often the smallest: reclining on a vast brightly-painted bench stretching my legs in the dappled sunshine as New Age music played around me, or chatting with a storytelling Cuban ice-cream salesman in the midst of the most vibrant and colourful market I have ever seen in or outside a theatre. The superb choreography and the extraordinary logistical flair of the staging mean that such moments are never far away.
Given the scale, the complexity and the level of detail involved, not everything about the production could be said to be perfect. Some miscasting is evident, with 70-year old men stacking shelves in supermarkets and a very high proportion of street stall workers clearly too young for the roles they are playing. Indeed there is a level of implausibility in the sheer number of people selling things to each other and to the visitors — it is unlikely that in a real city so many people could eke out their existence in such a way. There was also, despite the variety, a certain amount of repetition. I swear that over the course of my two visits I must have heard the recorded voices of the woman collecting old appliances and the one selling local snacks over a thousand times. There have also been concerns expressed about the ways in which the actors themselves are treated on and off set — certainly it seems that spectators are given VIP treatment in comparison with the conditions in which the participants work. In some places the set is starting to come apart, although in many cases it is hard to say whether that effect is deliberate or not.
What can be said to be the themes of such an ambitious production? Given the scale at which the producers of the piece are working, they resemble the same issues which we all struggle with every day, highlighted and exaggerated in subtle ways as is proper to such a complex and colossal work of art. Human survival in the face of great inequality is one, along with the subtle and less-subtle ways in which we work together equanimously to resolve and/or avoid conflict in the face of ubiquitous injustice. In the end the themes which emerge reflect the nature of the piece itself, the challenges inherent in putting such an endeavour together. If there is a single strain of thought informing the work, it must be that of the sociologist Erving Goffman, according to whom “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify”. Goffman would certainly have appreciated this stupendously varied and infinitely entertaining production.