When you crash an opera, crash it at speed, there’s going to be a lot of shrapnel. A lot of wood splintered from cellos and smithereens from once great passions and tragedies. There’ll be blood, human and animal, and there’ll be money, creeping in from the balconies and raining from the chandeliers. Simon Stephens has taken Georges Bizet’s Carmen for a spin, and side-slamming it into our modern, wounded Europe, he’s made quite a mess. If you didn’t have your glossy programme, you’d need to identify it by dental records.
Carmen Disruption is a play with Bizet’s opera echoing through it. The longer it lives in the mind, the louder Bizet’s work asserts itself, the more impressively appropriate Stephens’ decisions are revealed to be. Its characters circle, independent of one another but brushing increasingly close, towards the scene of a crime, and of a performance. A singer arrives in a city and prepares to take on the title role. A Carmen from another age, or at least another production, provides the chorus and the conduit for what remains of Bizet’s music.
If Stephens has re-imagined Carmen for a Europe in crisis, it is by refusing the cohesiveness required for meaningful action to take place. Bizet’s take on Prosper Mérimée’s short story tells the story of a beautiful and fierce woman murdered by the soldier Don José who gradually becomes obsessed with her. We see his descent into lovesick madness, his rejection of the honest and besotted Michaëla, and Carmen’s doomed love for the toreador Escamillo. They are cogs within a narrative and tragic machine, their passions shadow those of the bullfight, they are drawn towards the point where they will destroy one another. Here the players are distinct. They are still types, after a fashion, but their stories play out in isolation and the moment of destruction they orbit is all but arbitrary. Instead of melting together in the Seville heat, instead they wander in urban isolation, absorbed by their own tragedies.
Carmen is now a rent-boy, played sexily thrusting by Jack Farthing. He hits the streets loaded with lube and Viagra in a fine new silk shirt. He turns heads, men and women fall in love with him, he haunts the doorway of the opera for a high-reward hook up. Michaëla is a young student who fingers herself in sexts to her professor, Escamillo fights bull markets, not bulls, and is on the verge of a goring from a $200 million investment in Chinese canned beef. Don José is no longer a soldier, but a driver for the shadiest of characters. The chorus is a single woman, mezzo-soprano Viktoria Vizin, a premonition of the role the anonymous Singer moves towards.
Stephens states that the condition of the opera singer, drawn out through interviews with another mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham, was the inspiration for this splintered Carmen. The star opera singer arrives, isolated from the production process, is taken through a single day of rehearsals that amount to little more than blocking, and then performs a role she has performed a hundred times before, the wrote-acting of an emotional journey that will bring its audience to tears. It’s the life of a celebrity, it’s a Teflon, highly polished life that has no truck with friction – that cannot snag on the world.
In many ways it’s the life of Paul in Birdland, the life of an international rockstar. The job is to speak with extraordinary passion and by doing so raise the lives of the ordinary people in your audience to those heights, but it’s performed by someone who has become critically removed those lives. As Stephens admits, it’s something he now has a little experience of in his own life. Stephens is as close to an international celebrity as British new writing gets – glitzier than Stoppard, more showbiz than Hare. His use of this status and this world in his works is never less than fascinating, but it’s also dangerous. As in Birdland there is the feeling that Stephens writes the Pharaohically rich and the absolutely confident better than the everyday and fragile poor. Escamillo and Carmen storm through the piece like super-heated astral bodies, Michaëla and Don José almost get lost in the noise.
And there’s plenty of noise to get lost in. Stephens supplements Bizet’s score with snatches of Daft Punk, Kraftwerk and Sonic Youth. These reforged characters carry their own musical universes around with them, their own motifs. Musical director Simon Slater weaves these diverse sources together into a beautifully textured whole, with Vizin and actor-musicians Jamie Cameron and Harry Napier providing the onstage live elements.
Director Michael Longhurt’s production embraces the piece’s fragmentation and sense of accident. The cast stand scattered in an Almeida stripped so bare under Lizzie Clachan’s design it’s almost liminal, a theatre under construction, or an abandoned tobacco factory. In the centre is the body of a huge bull, fatally wounded and softly, continuously breathing its last throughout the piece. A pool of black Birdland blood slowly grows around it. In moments of high passion the space becomes a twisted ballroom, caught in Jack Knowles’ brilliant lighting, and in moments of crisis it almost collapses, filling the air with plaster and brick dust.
There’s so much compacted and crushed into the production that it’s impossible to take everything in on a single viewing. The script is unforgiving, the plotting lean, and yet there are aspects which seem superfluous and threaten conceptual overload. Elements such as the surtitle screen (shades of Three Kingdoms, as well as conventional ‘opparatus’) stay just out of focus and on the edge of coherence. References to omnipresent smartphones as a symbol of narcissism and alone-ness feel out of place or unnecessary. Carmen is at its best when it imitates its source most closely, and raises the common and the uncared for to the highest heights.
Together with Farthing’s performance as gender-swapped Carmen, there is superb work from Jack Light as the desperate stock-broker, and the incredible Noma Dumezweni as Don José. In a production that could easily come off as austere, they give it vital heart and humanity.
That is Stephens’ greatest achievement with Carmen Disruption. Intelligent, beautiful and finely gauged as it is, his play speaks of loneliness with a fierce clarity. His Carmen is not about people who come together to destroy one another, but the far more tragic self-destruction of people or peoples who cannot come together at all.