Carmen Disruption had me at the bull.
Entering the once again reconfigured Almeida auditorium, those of us with seats in the stalls are directed through dingy backstage corridors, emerging onto a rubble-strewn stage. We’re in a crumbling opera house, winding our way past the huge stricken bull that dominates Lizzie Clachan’s design. It remains there in the centre of the stage – hulking, symbolic, breathing its last – as the fractured lives of Simon Stephens’s play circle it, step over it, snap photos of it on their ubiquitous, glimmering smartphones.
The bullfight metaphor has mileage. In Mike Bartlett’s Bull it provides the entire form for the play, as two suited-and-booted matadors savage their doomed colleague. In Islands, the violent ritual is once again symbolic of capitalism, described in extended, gory detail by a grinning Caroline Horton. Here, the dying animal oozes tar-like blood across the stage, an ever-present image of devastation.
It’s also a reference to the bullfighting backdrop of Bizet’s opera, which Carmen Disruption explodes and pieces back together. There’s a moment right at the start of Michael Longhurst’s production – discordant strains of cello, darkness pierced with splinters of light – which somehow feels like a shattering of glass. The rest of the play is spent gathering those shards, fingers bloodied, jagged reflections glinting off the multiple shiny surfaces. It’s Carmen smashed, Carmen refracted, Carmen disrupted.
At the play’s centre – if it can really be said to have a centre – is an unnamed Singer (Sharon Small). She arrives at an unnamed airport, travels through an unnamed European city, arrives at an unnamed opera house sat on the edge of an unnamed river. All she really knows is that tonight she’s singing Carmen, the role she has performed in multiple productions in multiple cities, each shading into the next. And as she traverses this strange yet familiar urban landscape, the opera becomes more real than the faces and buildings sliding past her, imposing itself on the contours of the city.
Carmen becomes Jack Farthing’s swaggering rent boy, all leather jacket and sex appeal. Don José (the quietly astonishing Noma Dumezweni) is a driver for a shady character, trying to pay off old debts and right old wrongs; Escamillo (John Light) has traded bullfighting for investment banking, with a huge bet riding on the canned beef market in China, while Micaëla (Katie West) is a lost, lonely student. Their lives overlap, intertwine, glide past each other, as they all catch glimpses of a mysterious woman with long, curly black hair.
It’s a lot to take in. Longhurst’s direction is swift and sharp; miss a sentence and you won’t get it back. But while these intersecting stories are occasionally hard to follow, you can’t miss the distinctly 21st-century loneliness that throbs through all of them. Instead of speaking to one another, the broken individuals of the play talk out to us. As in Pornography, or in the never-quite-connecting monologues of Barrel Organ’s Nothing, Carmen Disruption offers a portrait of atomisation. The only respite from solitude and heartache is found in the glowing rectangles of smartphones – “should I look it up on my phone?” Small’s floundering Singer keeps asking, eyes darting wildly – while fleeting identity is invested in the things people buy: shirts, espressos, opera tickets.
There’s a thick vein of alienation and global dislocation running through Stephens’s more recent plays. The Singer is Paul in Birdland. She’s Iggy in Three Kingdoms. The world has fallen away from her, sloughed off by countless airport departure lounges and identical hotel rooms, disappearing along with any sense of self. Directors tell her where to stand and how to move her arms, but “they never tell me who the fuck I’m meant to be”. There’s a line repeated from Birdland: “none of this is real”.
That’s one way of reading Carmen Disruption. None of this is real. But that loss of reality is less to do with the Singer’s disorientated mental state and more to do with the identical, antiseptic spaces of late capitalist cities; the global simulacra of hotel rooms and lobbies and shopping centres. It doesn’t feel real because there’s nothing distinct about any of it. We might as well be anywhere – and in Longhurst’s production we are. This is a shadowy world, one eschewing the shiny coloured surfaces of Carrie Cracknell and Ian MacNeil’s Birdland in favour of the crumbling alternate reality of the opera. Theatre has become more real than life, but even that illusion is dissolving at the edges. The only constant is the low hum of electronic alerts, a peripheral stream of information scrolling on the surtitle screen mounted in the back corner of the stage.
The result is smashed-up and bruised and bloody, but breathlessly beautiful nonetheless. There’s a murky, eroding grandeur to Clachan’s design, with occasional bursts of glitter and dust, while the disjointed monologues are laced with echoes of Bizet’s score courtesy of the two onstage cellists. As that other, shadowy Carmen, glimpsed out of the corners of characters’ eyes, Viktoria Vizin is a haunting presence, her voice layering gorgeously over everything else. In the programme, she’s listed simply as Chorus, and there’s something about her constantly observing presence that seems to anticipate the Almeida’s upcoming season of Greek tragedies.
This tragedy, though, is not one of a fallen individual, but perhaps of a falling continent. No matter what the unspecified country we are in, this is clearly a Europe in crisis, its people worshipping at the feet of money and technology while failing to engage with – or even see – one another. The sadness that seeps into every pore of this production speaks of a wider malaise, a crisis that might be averted if only we were capable of reaching out to one another. There’s an insistent humanity to this scattered collection of characters, who yearn for intimacy while shunning it in the same movement. Again and again, they can’t connect. The tragedy is collective, but the pain is isolated.
Photo: Marc Brenner.