When you think of Carmen, what comes to mind is a combustible mix of lust, drama and enough fiery passion to set light to your soul. This tragic story of a woman murdered by her spurned lover has lasted the ages but almost all the ingredients that make this story attractive are missing in this interesting but rather emotionless contemporary reworking.
Writer Simon Stephens has pulled the five main characters from Merimee’s story and Bizet’s opera and reset them in a nameless modern city to examine the timelessness of the themes in the original story. It’s an intriguing idea, an interesting premise, to take apart a classic and freshen it up, but instead too much is lost and not much is gained.
The production design from Lizzie Clachan is achingly heavy on symbolism. The Almeida stage has been stripped back to its dark brick walls and dusty wood floors, as much evoking a bullring as well as a fading opera house. A gored bull is slumped centre stage, its heaving chest struggling to gasp its final breaths. Whilst around him, the mezzo soprano Viktoria Vizin, dressed in traditional Carmen style with gypsy style clothing, sashays back and forth, bursting out fragments from Bizet’s opera as the modern world revolves around her.
But the modern world and its characters aren’t engaging, lack passion and have few engaging character traits. Instead they all seem victims with no fire in their belly to grab your attention and your sympathy.
A couple of them are interesting and multi-faceted. Carmen is now a rent boy (excellent performance from Jack Farthing) a hustler who is on the constant look out for his next client, though his experiences of violence and exploitation have stripped him of all love and compassion in his life.
Similarly the toreador Escamillo is now a suited and booted banker but heavily exposed to the tune of $200mn and desperately scavenging through his contacts to try and bail himself out. The part is well played by John Light who mines the character for as much villainous fun as he can but forgive me if I don’t feel any sympathy for a banker facing his doomsday scenario.
Sadly the other three characters are not so well fleshed out. The Singer (Sharon Small) as the pill-addicted actress who doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going lacks any kind of depth. Don Jose is now a taxi driver (Noma Dumezweni) but it’s unclear what her role is, and Micaela (Katie West), the young girl dumped by Don Jose for Carmen in the original, is now a student having a webcam relationship with her tutor but this setup is just too much of a cliché.
So what is the point of all this? What is the theme? Well, I sense it’s loneliness. Urban isolation. Each of the five contemporary characters is alone, either by choice or by circumstance. Unable to find a meaningful connection with anything or anyone in the world, they wander around this unspoken city, their paths always brushing each other’s but never colliding.
This is a worthy set of emotions to explore but it seems odd to shoehorn this into a dissection of Carmen – not a natural partner for this. And any emotional punch doesn’t land as we don’t care about any of the characters on the stage. One of those frustrating evenings when the idea is better than the result.
Almeida Theatre, London to May 23, 2015
1. Carmen Disruption – Viktoria Vizin, John Light and Noma Dumezweni by Marc Brenner
2. Carmen Disruption – Viktoria Vizin by Marc Brenner
3. Carmen Disruption – Viktoria Vizin, John Light, Noma Dumezweni, Harry Napier and Sharon Small by Marc Brenner
4. Carmen Disruption – John Light by Marc Brenner