Thursday, 23 April 2015

Theatre review: Carmen Disruption

The Almeida's "gold" season looking, directly or tangentially, at money, comes to a close with the UK debut of a Simon Stephens play originally commissioned and performed in Germany, where he's a big name. The audience in the stalls enters Carmen Disruption through the backstage area, the better to see Sharon Small in her dressing room as The Singer, an opera star who's travelled the world for years, singing the title role in Bizet's Carmen in different productions, in different opera houses. It's been her life for so long that her own identity has started to blur into the character, and when she arrives in the latest, unnamed European city, she starts to pick out archetypes from the story in the people she passes in the street: Carmen (Jack Farthing) becomes a beautiful, damaged rent boy, whose good looks are irresistible to all (at least they are in his own head.)

Don José (Future Dame Noma Dumezweni) is a cab driver who wants to reconnect with her estranged son, but first needs to repay a grisly "favour" she owes to a gangster.

Micaëla (Katie West) is a student crushed when her affair with a lecturer ends, and the bullfighter Escamillo (John Light) becomes an investment banker, his dangerous dances not with animals but with high-risk loans and deals. There is a bull in Lizzie Clachan's design - a huge animatronic of a dying animal, which can be seen breathing its last breaths, is the centrepiece of a design that goes back to the bare walls of the Almeida and evokes an exploded opera house.

As with most of Stephens' work, his text is devoid of stage directions and the tone and style of the piece is left up to the director. In this instance it's director-of-the-moment Michael Longhurst who gives us a haunting walk through a city where everyone is isolated: The script consists of five interconnected monologues, the characters occasionally passing each other in the street but barely noticing each other, and often interpreting things very differently. Carmen characteristically thinks Micaëla has been struck by his beauty from across the street; when we hear her version of the story she's not even registered his presence.

Longhurst adds atmosphere with music, Jamie Cameron and Harry Napier playing cellos while Viktoria Vizin is a Chorus who may be a version of the opera's Carmen, sometimes singing arias from the original, sometimes twisted versions of them. But the biggest contribution to Carmen Disruption's unique feel may be Imogen Knight's haunting movement direction (John Light really does like hanging off the side of a set, doesn't he?) As downsides go, both Andy and I felt that Micaëla's story, despite its tragic impetus, never felt as developed as the others; and as is often the case with Stephens' writing, though his language is some of his most poetic, I didn't feel as emotionally connected as the piece seemed to demand. But Longhurst's production is impressive enough to overcome these issues, and as the five characters' stories circle around an unseen sixth and a violent conclusion, the play has one last shock to provide - perhaps not in the fact of one character's complicity in the finale, but in the matter-of-fact way it's confessed.

Carmen Disruption by Simon Stephens is booking until the 23rd of May at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

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