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A CurtainUp London Review
Inspired by the travels of an operatic lead singer who sings Carmen all over the world, Simon Stephens became fascinated by the life this singer led, travelling, engaging with social media rather than meeting people in person, often fitting into productions at quite short notice with just a rehearsal showing her where to stand. So taking this singer as his starting point, dressed as Carmen and singing some of the most famous arias he has reinvented each of the main characters of Carmen with a differing interpretation and with little interaction with each other.
The audience is led round the back of the theatre passing some dressing rooms and across the stage, which is dominated by the body of a dying bull, to their seats. Sharon Small plays the Singer, the iterant wanderer (are itinerant and wanderer tautology?) a small figure in a black raincoat with two wheelie suitcases, one for her medication. She is seen waiting in airports, booking into hotels and catching trains but it is opera singer Viktoria Vizin, who traditionally dressed as Carmen, sings the songs from Bizet's opera.
The Singer observes the globalization of cities, the sameness of the shops, the identikit airports, the impossibility of telling exactly where you are from your surroundings. The connections with others are virtual through smart phones.
The other characters are introduced slowly, Micaela (Katie West) is the abandoned girlfriend of Don Jose in the original, dropped for Carmen. Here she is a student and her music is Sonic Youth's "Expressway To Yr Skull". She is suicidal after the breakdown of her relationship with her older tutor.
Carmen is played by Jack Farthing as a rent boy with an Essex accent looking for customers in the city. His song is Daft Punk's "Touched. This Carmen is full of bravado and self admiration but really existing in the most insecure and dangerous occupation. Jack Farthing has a face full of cynicism and the sex scene is fully explicit.
Don Jose (Noma Dumezweni) has Roy Orbison's "It's Over". She is a taxi driver on the edges of a criminal world but looking for a lost son. Here I found the relationship with the opera most puzzling. Escamillo (John Light), in the original, the crowd adored bull fighter that Carmen takes up with, transforms as a businessman on the edge of deal which if it succeeds will make him but if it fails will break him. Here I can start to see the parallels of the situations, one risking his life as a bullfighter, the other in a risk filled occupation. Kraftwerk's "Hall of Mirrors" is his modern song.
Lizzie Clachan's set is a crumbling opera house but dominated by the fallen bull, a tragic site. Two cellists accompany. Michael Longhurst's direction builds excitement and detachment.
Simon Stephens' plays when influenced by European theatre are rarely easy. They make the audience work but that work produces a stab at a satisfaction rarely achieved by more predictable drama.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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