On the announcement of the Spring season at the Almeida Theatre, I was thrilled to see the addition of the latest offering by playwright Simon Stephens (whose recent plays Birdland and Seawall I greatly enjoyed) and Saturday night saw me back at the Islington venue for the second preview of Carmen Disruption. As this was only preview number two (press night in on Friday 17th April), it would be unfair for me to call this post a review, so it is instead simply my thoughts on the preview I saw, which was already 10 minutes leaner than the night before and still being tweaked by the writer and cast this week. Carmen Disruption is billed as a reimagining of Bizet’s famous opera Carmen. However, I’m not sure that this is an entirely accurate description and could in fact be slightly misleading. The play features five principal characters, each of whom are named after a character in the opera and who intersect with each other as their individual vignettes unfold. Weaving among them all is the internationally acclaimed mezzo soprano Viktoria Vizin, listed in the cast as Chorus, who is the embodiment of Carmen, in full period costume.
Having had time to read the programme notes before the play, I could start to pick out the themes which Stephens was aiming to convey – that of our isolation from one another, in a world so well connected coming through most of all. Each character is experiencing their own journey, through this unnamed European city and yet, other than perhaps crossing paths, they never engage with each other. Each is an island among whom the presence of Vizin’s Carmen is the only glimpse at a connection. It makes for a rather bleak, grey look at today’s society and highlights the very sad reality that a great deal of us feel lonely in our lives, despite the technological advances that make us more connected than ever before. I’m rather conflicted as to my overall opinion of the play. Visually, it is very striking, with the combination of lighting and movement, creating moments on stage that I can already picture as production photos. Some of the individual vignettes are rather interesting and engaging (despite all being rather miserable in tone) and there are some great performances, which will no doubt grow in strength over the run.
Standing out for me were Jack Farthing’s role of rent boy Carmen, whose character you warm to, through his flirty, cocky charm, as he slinks around the stage and Noma Dumezweni’s Don Jose, the taxi driver struggling to reconnect with her children, from whom she has been estranged and who have now grown up without her. Her raw emotions were very believable and she connected with the audience wonderfully, drawing us in to her life. Sharon Small plays the quirky character of The Singer well too, a person whose life is so caught up with travelling the world playing Carmen, that she has lost her sense of self and finds herself seeing the traits and characters of the opera all around her (which of course they are here, in the form of the other actors).
I felt the stories of Escamillo (John Light) and Micaela (Katie West) had less depth and were the less interesting aspects of the piece for me (and one scene in which John Light’s Escamillo seemingly mimics a bull in sound and movement an example of where the piece was just too weird for me). Then of course there is Vizin as Carmen, moving gracefully and sensuously around the stage, before breaking in to the iconic arias of the opera (albeit with modern English words). She was superb and I found my focus gravitating back to her throughout, despite the almost hypnotic presence of the life-size bull in the centre of the stage (which is indeed breathing if you think your eyes are deceiving you).
However, for me personally, that highlights the biggest problem I had with the play and the production as a whole. I found myself looking forward to the next vocal performance from Vizin, accompanied by the two talented cellists, over and above the other actors on the stage and therefore left the theatre with a feeling of disappointment. I can see what Simon Stephens is trying to do with this work, taking two different ideas and mediums and putting them together, to try and make a wider comment on the world, but, for me, the elements just didn’t fit and instead I found myself wishing I’d instead seen Carmen with Vizin in the title role. I at least will now put that on my list of cultural events to look out for in the future. I will certainly be curious to see what others think of this play over the course of its run.
Carmen Disruption continues in previews at the Almeida Theatre, London until press night on Friday 17th April. It then runs until 23rd May 2015. Further information and ticket availability can be found on the Almeida’s website.