Carmen Disruption – The Almeida Theatre – May 11th 2015

Carmen Disruption might more adequately be described as Carmen Discombobulation or more proasaically Carmen Disconnection. Whatever its description, it stands as a rewarding evening, and a fine piece of theatre.

It is terse and telegraphic and sometimes tightly enigmatic, suggesting much it is wary of being “normal”. It cleaves to the old Formalistic edict to make the familiar strange: in a modern-day world, four characters are in thrall to “the Now” that technology offers, or pushed apart by its disruptions, whilst Bizet’s “original Carmen” dressed in corset and gypsy clothes, haunts the production like a ghost from the past.

Referents from the opera are there, and loosely displayed: The famous Habenera is present but mutilated. It is like the libretto was abandoned for a hundred years, eroded, found much later and pieced together with guesses – a future archaeology.  This almost “cut-up approach” comes from a creative team (Michael Longhurst and Simon Slater) treating the opera like a “text” to mess around with. Regardless, the concerns of Carmen the opera peek through, modernised. The postmodern approach makes for thought-provoking and brave theatre.

Carmen Disruption wishes nothing more than to make us re-evaluate our daily lives and our reliance on social media and to ween us away from our easy addiction to that dopamine rush of instant gratification. In this respect its aim is salutary, but for me it didn’t wholly succeed in addressing its bete noires. It did make me a bit sad after though. It scored some palpable hits.

Each character loosely corresponds to a character from Bizet’s opera: A gay man (Carl/Carmen) a singer (Carmen, but not) a Taxi Driver, (Don Jose) a businessman (Escamillo /Milo) a university student (Michaela).They narrate to us in the present tense. There is very little interaction.  We are told, not shown. They are all angry, frustrated, despairing, without hope. One senses that these are not so much characters in search of an author, but everymen/women in search of meaning, Frankl via desperate graspings for beauty, moments of grace, love.

Rarely does more than one character address another. They partake almost in soliloquies. There is no back and forth dialog, only statement. Often everyone freezes whilst the talking unveils. The awful fear of solipsism, the terror of being alone chills the writing. This is theatre of disconnection, it shows human isolation and loneliness and we know it to be speaking a truth.

The Singer (Sharon Small) says she feels like an automaton. She tells us of being directed onstage. She is told everything except “who [I] am meant to be”. (Existential concerns in Carmen Disruption are never far away). Hers is a lonely life. She stays in airbnb properties but hates that they are not hers.  She is, like Milo, rootless.

Milo/Escamillo himself (John Light) is a testosterone and probably cocaine fueled investment broker, a “1%”er.  His character owes a lot to Brett Ellis-Easton’s American Psycho. He asserts that he can predict the financial future, a level of hubris which I doubt even novice brokers claim to own. Money is his drug. (“There is,” he declares, “nothing on the planet more emotional than money.”) In a cute moment, at the end of a particularly violent outburst, he unconsciously makes flamenco-y gestures. A hand flourish, a foot-stamp: we see his double, his antecedent shines through. Clearly, we conclude, human behaviour is the same throughout the ages. We are all just iterating the same responses to the same desires.

Carmen and Milo

Speaking to each other across the centuries: Carmen Disruption’s Carmen (Viktoria Vizin) and Milo (John Light)

Carmen/Carl (a truly memorable and fine performance from Jack Farthing) describes pornographic films, pornographic encounters and acts. He declaims, with authentic vocal “uptick” of the young, about inconsiderate people on the train, people who get in his way, the men he meets in bars. He checks his tinder, his grindr, his facebook, his email, his Vine, his Instagram, his twitter and more. All have no activity. We see his self-worth shrink upon seeing this. With no likes, upvotes, revines, favourites and right swipes, no one loves him. His are superficially first world problems which hide a timeless, needy heart. Bizet’s Carmen’s and her desperate love for love return to us. Her liminal state as gypsy – prostitute, yet still person – echoes in Carl’s behaviour and life.

Michaela (Katie West) is young and guileful despite her appearance of teen assuredness. She wonders if the world will be “lighter” without her, i.e. better were she dead. She has had a relationship with a sixty three year old man, now ended. Although well acted, her and the Taxi Driver (Noma Dumezweni) were perhaps the most “deflected” characters to be sourced from the original. Some of their concerns were not as easily mapped as Carl and Milo’s.

The Driver quests for her lost child. She describes meeting him, being given tea. She feels valued, “noticed” because he has made it how she likes. The simple act of care touches her deeply. Later she enthuses of her son that she loves him so much that she will murder him, and stay with his body till the sun rises. This is love by way of Maldoror. Urgent and violent because ignored.

Finally, Viktoria Vizin’s Carmen herself is an uncanny “irruption”.  Through her excellent mezzo (though a little American-accent tinged?) we hear the familiar tunes and refrains of Bizet, sometimes altered. At one point in the famous Habanera we are lead to expect the familiar en masse chorus of “Prends garde à toi!” but we are denied it, it rings out only in our imaginations. A clever move,  it leaves us unsatisfied, wanting to hear it. We have been denied our demanded gratification.

Roy Orbison plays, and the final line “It’s over” is shown on a dot matrix screen (which also variously doubled as surtitles, Carl’s social media feed, an airport departure board, Milo’s Forex and trade board) is repeated and repeated, its meaning clear.

All this oddity is used to illustrates the paradox that we are all now infinitely reachable because of technology, yet we are each of us infinitely distant from each other – living in our self proscribed bubbles of comfort. McLuhan’s dream has become a nightmare.

Thus does Carmen Disrupted pose its questions. It also attempts to provide answers.
Some of these answers felt a little false, or twee. Michaela describes watching the life die from an animal’s eyes (ok, I thought, “transience, visceral feeling – to feel at all?”); Taxi Driver reminisces about her first time seeing snow (snowflakes “as big as marshmallows”… ok, so be alive to beauty) and the ocean (same). Carl/Carmen sees a girl rest her nose on a guy’s chin and “it seems like a miracle” to him (ok, so love?).  Disruption’s gentle preaching was a little too saccharine, digging for haloes in the gutter and telling us to dig too. (I was reminded of the silly floating plastic bag in the film American Beauty, symbol of freedom, and also beauty to be found in the banal.) At one point, the matrix board shows the ominous sounding phrase “shadows we are and like shadows depart”: memento mori indeed and true too, yet a little out of place, a little overdone.

And yet everything made one think. Watching their fragmented world where Sorge is absent, I found myself thinking of Levinas: we exist only meaning-fully when we interact with another. Everything is predicated on this primacy. (Yes, I am a Levinas fan.)

In a world where people get in your way, where everything is buyable and banal for it, in a city where your human interaction is only with your fare-paying customers and that interaction is transactional and brief, when all you do is present a character onstage and forget who you really are, where you are to young to know who you are, and feel wounded for it, one questions oneself.

phone-less-870c9144

Modern dining.

One wonders too: In making life so easy for ourselves with the aid of phones and computers, perhaps we make it harder for ourselves to live “meaningfully”? Perhaps too, we make it harder for others to get to know us?

The question is here not “to be or not to be”, but only to be, to be well, and to love. “Disruption” is certainly a scathing indictment of instrumentalism, loneliness and disconnection. At the end of the play Farthing’s Carmen begs the onstage musicians to pay heed to him. He wishes only to talk. They walk off, utterly ignoring him, engrossed in their phones. I noticed real tears here from him, and emotion at the applause when it came and so too tears from Dumezweni in her final scene. This was important theatre for them, and for us.

‘A depth-charge to the theatre’: John Light and Viktoria Vizin in Carmen Disruption at the Almeida.

A bull, and two humans.

And then there’s the bull, supine, dead, massive onstage, treated as I had hoped Holten’s head would have been: an anchor of uncanny reference.

At one point it comes to life and heaves its last dying breaths. Later it bleeds, black oily ichor seeping from its underside. The cast take photos of it on their phones.  Haunting Carmen reclines onto the bull, singing for us to imagine a world where love disappears, her tone elegiac, Dido-like, fading to whisper, and to silence.

The lights went out, and the applause began.

To describe the evening is to rob it of its peculiar power. Carmen Disruption primes us to question ourselves, but whether we will, is another matter. The minute the lights went up, the man next to me got on his phone. Walking to the tube, I passed a girl using Skype in the street with someone. The familiar had become strange. I had left my phone at home accidentally and found myself in real need of it later, having to borrow a stranger’s. The irony was not lost on me. To modify Valery, we “must endeavour to try to live” with our disruptions.

Like its characters, Carmen Disruption speaks in the dark, urging us to listen. It is most definitely worth going to and going more than once. You won’t regret it.*

NOTE

*I say this as someone who doesn’t really like theatre, and who thought “View From the Bridge” was overblown and stupid. So that’s saying a lot.

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