A queer La Bohème for the Grindr generation
- Credit: Joseph Martin-Kelly
In 2009, a production of La Bohème banged out on a piano in a Kilburn High Road pub brought bewildered drinkers up close to the magic of opera.
With references to Jedward and Gordon Brown, it cast Puccini's lovers Mimi and Rodolpho as penniless Kilburn students and scooped an Olivier award and West End transfer.
The company Opera Up Close found a home at Islington's King's Head Theatre, and the pioneering production has been revived several times - the latest by the theatre's new co-artistic director Mark Ravenhill.
This time it's set in 2022, with gay lovers who hook up on Grindr and have a hinterland of hedonistic partying - Rodolpho is now Robin and Mimi, a Liberty perfume salesman, expires from an overdose.
"Bohème is a bit of a tradition at the King's Head," admits the playwright. "It's like a house piece, I felt there was another incarnation for it."
The Camden Town resident took over last July and is all for picking up where predecessor Adam Spreadbury-Maher left off.
"If you come into a new job you can either do a razed earth policy and go in a completely different direction, or look at what was there already and grow any unfinished business."
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Ravenhill's production centres on "two interlinking couples who reach middle age and are facing the possibility that now may be the time to sell out and settle down."
Heterosexual couple Marcus and Marissa are a counterpoint to Mimi and Robin's "big romantic love", with model Marissa choosing between a hedge fund manager and an artist.
"They are in lust with each other, breaking up and getting back together. The sex is the only thing they've got in common. While Mimi and Rodolpho is a story of young love I felt it was more interesting and honest to play the age the performers really are. People's youth extends longer these days, and there's a heightened problem as an artist - when are you going to earn money and settle down?"
While Ravenill loves Bohème with a full orchestra and chorus, he says "it's such a rich piece, with just a piano you hear different things".
He's expanded the running time from 60 to 80 minutes to allow the story "to breathe". Like the scene where Mimi is introduced to Robin's pals.
"It's quite realistic you might be head over heels, taking them to the pub to meet your friends worrying how that was going to work out. On one level it's a crush and how long can a crush sustain itself? What do you do with romantic love after it's happened?"
Ravenhill had little contact with the artform until working as an usher at The Coliseum.
"I went to a local comp with no music teaching or exposure to opera until I was 23 when I saw all the shows and started buying recordings. Opera is like the ultimate form of theatre. It's theatre to the max. It puts everything into technicolour."
He found lockdown productive, finishing several projects including The Haunting of Susan A, a ghost story centring around the Upper Street pub, which will be performed there in June.
"I actually wrote a lot," he says. "The most compatible thing with lockdown was being a writer and I found the thing that kept me calm sane and happy was making up characters and stories. It was good for me. After doing this for 25 years, I realised I did like being a writer. It wasn't just a job but really central to who I am."
With the King's Head due to move into a purpose built new home mid 2023, Ravenhill knows his quiet writing life will become the "opposite extreme of toilets and budgets and planning."
"You just have to throw yourself into it."
The playwright burst onto the scene in 1996 with Shopping and F***ing, a prophetic dark comedy about the brutalising effect of consumerism on a group of queer friends. He's since written for Marc Almond and drag star Bette Bourne, co-created the Ian McKellen/Derek Jacobi gay sit-com Vicious, and penned Mother Clap's Molly House a celebration of the sexual diversity of 18th century London. So he's a good fit to build on the theatre's tradition of staging LGBTQ+ work.
"There's still a really rich seam of work to explore and stories that haven't been told," he says. "The intention is to be a central hub for companies that want to make that work and for audiences who want to hear about it."
Of the endurance of his own work he says: "You never can tell, some plays date and some that you think are the most specific for their time, have something about them that can be constantly rediscovered. My play Pool (No Water) is popular with student groups, it's on somewhere in the world every night, and when I hear someone in Chile or Romania is doing Shopping and F***ing it's nice that it still has a life."
But he wants to continue innovating.
"Artists use their imaginations to project a step ahead of the news cycle or politics. Theatre should set the agenda not follow it."
La Bohème runs at The King's Head, Islington April 26-May 28. Visit kingsheadtheatre.com/whats-on/la-bohme