Pros: The truly gorgeous design and the engaged and talented cast are beyond impressive.
Cons: It fails to engage us in its high concept script, which is geared towards those familiar with the original opera.
Everything I know about the opera I learned from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beloved musical The Phantom of the Opera, which is to say, I don’t know very much. I can’t say that’s ever been a problem for me before; I’ve made it though life as a generally cultured and intelligent person and never really felt like I was missing out due to my lack of operatic knowledge… until I saw the Almeida’s current production of Carmen Disruption, that is.
This visually stunning and exquisitely designed work unfolds around the transient lifestyle of an opera performer, which I didn’t catch onto until late in the play and still didn’t fully understand until I read the program. Turns out most opera singers commit themselves to one role and travel frequently, sometimes only rehearsing in a new space with a new crew and cast for 12 hours before making a handful of appearances, and then moving on to a new venue in a new city. The experience of the unnamed Singer serves as a jumping point for writer Simon Stephens to explore the disorientation and existential crises brought on by the unstable, anonymous, and isolated nature of living in gentrified European cities. It’s all very high brow.
As the show begins the Singer lands in a new anonymous city to dive into a new show, apparently crumbling into madness after years of feeling displaced. Her only constant is her onstage persona, Carmen, of the titular French opera. The Spanish dancer comes alive for the Singer, following her throughout her day like an angry ghost and belting pieces from the opera, sometimes the original French and other times new English lyrics set to the operatic score. Presumably these new original lyrics offered commentary on the plight of the characters but were too hard to hear clearly to be particularly thought provoking.
Elsewhere in the city, a young and vain male prostitute Carmen deals with a job gone bad; the damaged student Micaëla contemplates mortality and the fallout of an affair with her married professor; taxi driver Josephine juggles her debt to a crime boss and blossoming reconciliation with the son she abandoned; and haughty business man Escamillo almost loses everything. The imaginary Carmen (not to be confused with prostitute Carmen) lords over them all, serenading us with the help of onstage cellists whenever she pleases. The city dwellers’ lives almost converge in the climactic final scenes, and there is drama galore at the end which I won’t spoil for you.
What can I say but that the whole thing is heavy with unclear and unnecessary metaphor, so specifically geared to an audience familiar with the nuances of the 1875 opera. Even after plenty of follow up research I found the concept confusing and altogether lacking. I see now what Stephens’ script was attempting to do, but there were simply too many elements at play and an overarching elitism surrounding the use of the opera as a framing device that I found it unnerving and hard to relate to.
All of that said, Carmen Disrupted is a positively beautiful production, with brilliant lighting, spot on costuming, and stellar performances which kept me engaged despite my blank slate on the material. The Almeida Theatre is such a stunning venue, with its deconstructed stage and old world beauty that to sit in the theatre is worth any show, no matter how confusing. The artistry of the production speaks for itself, but was weighed down by the high concept existential commentary. I kind of wish the beautiful design elements had simply been applied to a traditional production of Carmen, but that’s not giving the fine cast credit where it’s due, so I won’t go that far.
If there’s one thing The Phantom of the Opera did teach me, it’s that plays about the opera don’t have to be unapproachable to us mere mortals (also not following creepy masked men into basements is always a good rule of thumb). Plays about the opera can, and should, appeal and relate to a wider audience than the narrow sliver of the population that spends their time in an opera box or dissecting opera and philosophy from an academic perspective. Carmen Disrupted failed on delivering its concept in anything close to a manageable package, but still, if you happen to be a Carmen super-fan or can ignore the overreaching script, the talent that went into bringing the disruption to life is more than worth your attendance.
Director: Michael Longhurst
Author: Simon Stephens
Composer: Simon Slater
Design: Lizzie Clachan
Booking Until: 23 May 2015
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking Link: http://www.almeida.co.uk/event/carmen-disruption