So there’s a play on in London at the moment about a well-meaning white woman who hears about a terrible situation happening abroad and wants to do something about it. So she stages a London-based festival to ‘raise awareness’ and funds for the people suffering. Unfortunately, the result is in many ways shambolic and highlights how these Gap Yar interventions often have a side to them that is unavoidably crass.
The name of that production is They Drink It In The Congo and it’s being performed at the Almeida. Coinciding with those performances in Islington last week was a ballet at the London Coliseum on St Martin’s Lane. Her Name Was Carmen is the world premiere of a new ballet that resets Georges Bizet’s operatic Carmen in a refugee camp in Europe. As part of the Irina Kolesnikova season at the ENO, the ballet is supported by and raises money for Oxfam. It’s also inspired by the visits Kolesnikova and Konstantin Tachkin (Director of the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre) made with Oxfam to refugee camps in Macedonia and Serbia. On the surface, this endeavour is nothing but applaudable. It’s also easy to conclude that anything with the end aim of sending more funds to people in these situations is fundamentally worthwhile. However, as with Stef and her CongoVoice festival, there is something deeply uncomfortable about the result of this attempt to help.
In the programme notes, Kolesnikova states, “Her Name Was Carmen, I hope, will draw attention to the heart-breaking stories of the millions that have arrived in Europe.” Unfortunately, this ballet entirely fails on exactly this part of the endeavour because, being a restaging of Bizet’s opera, it necessarily doesn’t tell the story of any Syrian refugee: it tells the story of Carmen. Or rather it tells a slightly truncated and updated version of Carmen in which the tragic heroine runs away after her parents are murdered and hides in a refugee camp where the inhabitants are mainly Syrians fleeing the war. Aside from a very broad common theme of ‘violence and forced displacement’ there is exceedingly little in this story which directly interacts with the specifics of the current refugee crisis or the particulars of the Syrian war.
There’s also a big clue in the title of the ballet as to whose story this is, along with it forming part of the ‘Irina Kolesnikova London Season’. Narratively, the focus is entirely on Kolesnikova as Carmen, as it also is choreographically and aesthetically. Costumed in picturesque peasant mode, Kolesnikova shimmies out of her on-the-run hoodie attire to reveal a lipstick red dress. I haven’t studied all the photos of refugee camps out there, but of the ones I have seen there doesn’t seem to be many living in the Calais Jungle, for instance, wearing off-the-shoulder frocks fresh from the dry cleaners. But, nonetheless, there she is looking pretty whilst surrounded by a simpering collection of refugees in upbeat colourful costumes running around waving coloured sheets.
The refugees are all members of the corps de ballet and mainly form variously frames around the centrepiece of Carmen. Apart from a so-happy-she’s-skipping child, none of those playing a refugee has a solo or even a duet. Their stories, names, individual differences are never revealed, they are simply one vibrant mass within which the showpiece of Carmen rotates. In one particularly teeth-grating moment, the slightly sad-looking Syrians have their troubles lifted by Carmen orchestrating a football match. There’s a serious point to made about the potential of sport to help people – football matches have been used in conflict areas to build relationships between different groups – but this scene, with the saintly European sweeping down like Santa with a sack of toys, feels trite and arrogant. Luckily for the reputation of UEFA, it is trumped by another in which a team of blue baseball-capped Volunteers (with giant Vs on them) come to the camp and hand out some bedding to the super-grateful refugees. The score – predominantly made from an altered version of Bizet’s original – switches to heart-tugging swirls of strings. I honestly believe that, as an organisation, Oxfam is laudable in what it does – so laudable in fact, that its actions overwhelmingly speak for themselves, making the staging of a ballet with an added saccharine commercial break for the aid agency completely redundant.
It would be easy to read this entire production as a vanity project. However, as with the protagonist of They Drink It In The Congo, it would take a severe cynic to entirely read Kolesnikova’s actions as egotistical. There was nothing stopping her from coming to London and doing another Swan Lake or Nutcracker. On one level or another, I imagine she does care about refugees and the work of Oxfam – opinions that make watching the result on stage almost more depressing. One could also speculate that, as a high profile Russian dancing for a company with links to the other state organisations – for example, Tachkin is both the Director of the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre and previously a Counsellor to the St Petersburg Department of Culture from 2008-2011 – staging a production which engaged too directly with the specifics of the situation in Syria could have created problems given Russia’s political standpoint on the country. A fairly broad ‘children dying is bad’ stance is unlikely to be viewed as too inflammatory.
As it happens, this is the second production I’ve attended in London this year with connections to the Syrian refugee crisis. The other was Queens of Syria at the Young Vic. In some respects, it is unfair to compare the two shows given their obvious intention to be very different types of theatre – one a verbatim spoken piece, the other a ballet based on a classic fictional opera. Interestingly though, both do contain a combination of the same modern day situation with a canonical work – Euripides’s The Trojan Women in the case of Queens of Syria. Remembering Queens of Syria highlights the inadequacies of a production about a group of people from an outsider’s perspective that includes no whisper from the people themselves. Whereas Queens of Syria is entirely led by first-hand testimony from Syrian women who fled to Jordan, Her Name Was Carmen places the people it claims to care most about at the very edges of the stage. The emphasis is on the heroic western rescuers, not the Syrians. The strong, honest and devastating words of the women on stage at the Young Vic categorically proved that these are not people in need of someone else speaking for them. Instead, what they need is more people listening.