by Simon Stephens
Directed by Michael Longhurst
Almeida Theatre, Islington, London
Monday 27th April 2015, evening
Sharon Small as The Singer
Jack Farthing as Carmen
Noma Dumezweni as Don Jose
John Light as Escamillo
Katie West as Micaela
Viktoria Vizin as ‘The Chorus’
Jamie Cameron and Harry Napier … cellists
I am not an opera fan, I’m not even an opera tolerator. My tastes in music are wide, but do not embrace opera. My dad was an ardent light opera fan (something you could admit to in those days), and as a kid, Gilbert & Sullivan and The Student Prince introduced me to the joys of large casts, elaborate costumes and sets and loud music, but I still never got to like “high opera.” One of my all time best theatrical experiences was the famed flamenco Carmen with Antonio Gardes in Madrid, Paco de Lucia on guitar. My publisher had got Saturday night tickets as a surprise treat after a day’s conference talks, and I forced a smile, imagining I was going to a long excruciating evening of high opera rather than an intense, short evening of wild flamenco dancing. I loved it, and it wasn’t just relief.
Carmen Disruption is NOT an opera, though it includes a genuine opera singer, Viktoria Vizin, in the cast and her singing is powerful and sublime, though always incomplete. The play takes two themes, first the life of an opera diva jetting in to productions all over the place to do her solo thing in multiple productions of Bizet’s Carmen, mixed up with the Carmen story, with Carmen becoming a gay male sex worker. The travelling diva is The Singer, but they have the proper singer too in full Carmen rig (listed as ‘The Chorus.’) Don Jose is Josephine, a taxi driver. Escamillo is a share dealer. That makes it sound clearer than it is.
The theatre with audience arriving
The people sitting in the stalls enter the theatre across the stage, skirting a full size realistic dead bull. The Almeida is done up like a red and gilt West End theatre, or a Spanish opera house, and the bare back brick wall is revealed. The curved bare brick is reminiscent of a bull ring. There are piles of bricks everywhere. There are speakers for recorded sound on view, plus two live cellists who play along but also add screeches and effects. A display normally used for hard-of-hearing presentations show words, lyrics, stock market results and plane departure times.
There is, I think, not a single piece of dialogue in the 90 minutes without break. It’s a series of monologues to front, and everyone stays on stage throughout, frozen in tableaux, or doing writhing dance movements. The activity gets close to dance theatre, and at times I’d classify it as such, and every one on stage can carry it off.
The Singer (Sharon Small) + Carmen (Jack Farthing)
The cast is also first division. Jack Farthing plays Carmen the rent boy, and is he hot or not at the moment? We watched him as the villainous banker, George, in Poldark on TV last night. Then he was John Lennon in Cilla and George Balfour in the film The Riot Club. His monologue on a sexual encounter with a customer passed my “explicit” boundary by a large margin, but he writhed and pouted and agonized to great effect. Then “The Singer” is Sharon Small, last seen on stage in Arden of Faversham at the RSC. Noma Dumezweni is Don Jose / Josephine, and I think that’s the fourth time we’ve seen her on stage … Globe, RSC, Michael Grandage Company. Why has Don Jose become a taxi driver instead of a soldier? Well, in a long monologue she explains that she has to pay off a debt by collecting a car with a dead body in the boot and disposing of it. So, in a Mafia sense, she’s a “soldier.” (Doh!) John Light is Escamillo, transmuted from toreador to city dealer. He’s operating in a BULL market (Doh!). Another one we’ve seen at the Globe and RSC. Katie West is a Mancunian student Micaela. In the original Carmen story, which is told in the programme, Micaela is the one Don Jose is supposed to marry. I’m trying to think how a student with a backpack, who picks up bricks and places them in the backpack relates to this, but cannot find an explanation. Her relationship appears to be via the internet. We see a lot of iPhones. Maybe Apple sponsored it. At the end there’s a monologue from The Singer describing a boy dying after a scooter accident. How does that relate? Is it Carmen? Dunno. Don’t ask me. Not a clue. Towards the end, the Singer gets dressed up in an identical classic Carmen costume to that of the chorus. Looks good. Looks meaningful. It probably is.
The Singer and Escamillo
Theatricality is commendable. So all bells ringing? Not really. I was left thinking, ‘What on Earth was that all about?’ If I were to match review style to content, I’d say it was a world of contrasting images creating a narrative, just as Marshall McLuhan suggested that people brought up with TV running in the background in their early childhood, would learn to think via the disjointed images used in advertising rather than demanding a linear narrative. That was in The Medium is the Massage, and that was half a century ago. Even at a theatre as hip as the Almeida, a lot of the audience predate that influence. At times, it skirted dangerously close to the dreaded Calixto Bieto, and his Forests is the worst thing I’ve seen on a stage, professional or amateur, in a decade.The actors, set, writing and directing were way, way better in Carmen Disruption, there is no comparison in quality of performance or production to Calixto Beito’s dire disaster, BUT … whenever a character is writhing around and climbing about on the back of the set while action is going on in front, my bullshit meter starts whirring. There’s NEVER an excuse for it.
Escamillo clambers on back of set
When Carmen (as rent boy) has apparently died (shown by standing stock still) and the chorus (dressed as Carmen the gypsy dancer) has collapsed as if dying on the bull, the large bull starts leaking black liquid. Unnecessary liquids or soil all over actors and costumes is another thing that sets the meter off. At least it wasn’t stage blood for a change. You could say that all in all, there was a lot of bull.
It was an exciting piece of theatre. Some of the monologues were very funny, others extremely unpleasant. All were dramatic. Everyone moved well. There were recorded rock sounds, live cello, live opera singing, dance moves, tableaux, good lighting. But transparency of plot was low. When I was twenty, I would have been hugely impressed by all that. Now I’m more cynical about it.
Punk Rock by Simon Stephens