Theatre review: Carmen Disruption at Almeida

This updated Carmen is intriguing but its idea wears thin, says Caroline David.

A huge animatronic bull lies wheezing, almost imperceptibly, centre stage in Simon Stephens’ freewheeling play inspired by Bizet’s opera.

The audience enters past a mocked up dressing room into a part-reconfigured Almeida auditorium, set up with red velvet seats and a chandelier. Two cellists play Bizet’s score. But for anyone hoping to orientate themselves through their knowledge of the plot - forget it. Carmen Disruption is an ambitious blend of impressionistic monologues, expressionist movement and opera with only the sliver of a storyline running through it.

The Singer [Sharon Small] travels to endless cities, staying in identikit hotels, always singing the role of Carmen. Her life of artifice and repetition is becoming too much: she’s losing her memory. Incarnations of modern-day types from the opera circle her world: a rent-boy as Carmen [Jack Farthing], Don Jose the soldier as a female cab driver [Noma Dumezweni], Escamillo the bull fighter as a strung-out banker [John Light], and village girl Micaela as a suicidal student [Katie West]. All characters are equally disconnected, enslaved by their dependence on cell phones and social media. The passionate spirit of Carmen [Viktoria Vizin] haunts them. Projections of their dialogue appear as email messages, texts, tweets on a scrolling dot-matrix display screen. They rush past each other, avoiding collision – just. This bleak night of the souls culminates in a motorbike crash.

There is some wonderful movement direction by Imogen Knight to convey their repetitive neuroses and the cast is exceptional in Michael Longhurst’s carefully staged production. Farthing is mesmerizing as the heartless, egoist boy-Carmen. While Stephens’ script is ripe with mordant witticisms, the play’s concept dominates any drama and the novelty of all this experimentation wears thin after a while. It’s the extracts from the opera, so beautifully sung by Vizin, which make a lasting impression.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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