Chimerica, King Charles III, and 1984 are some of the plays that have established the Almeida’s output over the past few years. They have garnered the praise of the critics, won major awards and made hugely successful West End transfers. The reason they’ve been successful is because they have several things in common. They’re fresh, clever, provocative, and entertaining. They challenge what we think; and they reinvent what we feel about plays and the theatre.
Carmen Disruption, currently on at the Almeida until the end of May, continues to cement Islington as the place for pre-eminent theatre in London right now. Simon Stephens’ re-imagining of Bizet’s classic opera isn’t necessarily that easy to get into; it’s difficult, complicated, intense, and challenging. The characters never interact with each other. The narrative is fragmented and wraith-like. And if you attempt to place either the play or its characters into a preconceived box, you’ll be frustrated at every turn.
The play assumes the characters of Bizet’s opera as archetypes. Carmen, Don Jose, Escamillo and Micaela embody certain qualities that all of us can identify with. Stephens’ modern characters, who inhabit a typical, nondescript, and unmentioned European city, are the contemporary embodiment of these operatic archetypes.
Carmen, the gypsy girl, has been transformed into a peacocking rent boy with skin-deep bravado, played with sumptuous swank by Jack Farthing. Don Jose, the corporal, is a single-mother taxi driver whose borderline criminality has left her desperate and alone, estranged from her children. And Escamillo, the toreador, is a sharp-suited, assertive banker plunged into a mind-boggling debt – he drinks his coffee black, and he doesn’t give a damn.
Their stories, although unrelated in a conventional sense, are representative of what Stephens sees as our isolated, unfulfilled, atomized, European lives. As we gaze down transfixed at our smart phone, Europe decays around us. As the lives of his archetypes from one of European opera’s most majestic creations disintegrate, the heaving, prostrate, black bull, centre stage is in its death throes. It is a transfixing, modern spectacle, and it aches with pain and grief for an erstwhile world, the memory of which is already fading.
The production’s imagery, sound and movement create a sublime arena for this powerful, modern drama. Without Lizzie Clachlan’s intoxicating set, and Michael Longhurst’s innovative direction, the difficulty of Stephens’ blank verse would be lost on the audience. It captivates the eye, and means that even when you’re not entirely sure what’s going on, you’re lost in the action.
Carmen Disruption doesn’t have the same populist sensibilities as some of the Almeida’s hits like Chimerica or King Charles III. It’s complex and demanding and not always easy to follow. But it’s also a fascinating theatrical experiment; and its expert cast and powerful staging bring this moving polemic on European decline vividly to life.
Carmen Disruption at the Almeida until Saturday 23rd May 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.