Carmen Disruption, Almeida Theatre

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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.

Constellations, Duke of York’s Theatre

The first thing to note about Constellations is the balloons. Tom Scutt’s gorgeous set design is full of them – hovering weightlessly above the two actors, clustered at the sides of the raised platform that fills the stage, occasionally tumbling slowly down. Watching this cloud of balloons while waiting for the performance to begin, I was reminded of two things: one was the simple delight of coming home on the night before my 21st birthday to find that my bedroom had been filled with dozens of the floating, multi-coloured things by my housemates; the other was that childhood game of letting go of a helium-filled balloon and watching it drift away to faraway imagined lands.

There’s something about the fragile gesture of hope and congratulation contained within the balloon – and implicit within those two associations – that makes a remarkably apt comment on Nick Payne’s gently complex two-hander. Built on the theory of the multiverse and the premise that each moment gives birth to a multitude of possible outcomes, all being lived along parallel lines in separate universes, Scutt’s balloons take on the character of floating possibilities, equally as likely to puncture as to soar. Like the child who lets go of the string and releases their helium bubble of dreams into the hostile air, the leap of faith required to open your life to another individual is a deeply optimistic act, dogged with the threat of failure at every slight gust of wind.

Payne’s defiantly hopeful figures being swept around the multiverse are quantum physicist Marianne and beekeeper Roland, who are engaged not so much in a “will they/won’t they” situation as “they do/they don’t”. In some variations of their first meeting, Roland rejects Marianne’s goofy flirting, while in some universes one of them is married before they even encounter one another; in some they get engaged, in some they cheat on one another, in some they pass each other by. Like the balloons, which flicker and light up around the two characters as they rapidly feel their way through different scenarios, Marianne and Roland emerge as two atoms “being knocked the fuck around” and occasionally finding contact.

The early part of Payne’s script runs the gamut of basic possibilities – think rom-com with a side of knowing wit – snapping sharply from scene to scene with quickfire precision while Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall shine in brief flashbulb bursts. Reflecting the initial encounters and early dates that form the majority of these scenes, this is theatre as flirtation: charming, calculated to impress, a tad shallow. The meticulously constructed scenes jitter attractively over the surface of Payne’s chosen subject matter, peppered with arch little references to time, mortality and the possibility of other universes, but not quite penetrating the depths. Form and content are intricately tangled up with one another, but the latter seems to serve the self-congratulatory cleverness of the former.

The nature of the piece – or perhaps of the sheer awkward charm of Hawkins and Spall, as it’s hard to tell – means that we become increasingly attached to Marianne and Roland, mirroring the same process that Payne appears to have gone through in writing the play. Half-abandoning the swift, dazzling structure of the opening scenes, our time with these two characters in each of their possible interactions becomes more prolonged and the multiple possible dramas they go through gradually heighten, shifting the emphasis away from formal virtuosity and towards emotional identification. The production is suspended in mid-air, caught between telling the many tender stories of this one couple and exploring the connected, wider concepts of chaos, control, choice and time.

Perhaps there is something in this emergence of a dominant narrative from the many splintered possibilities, something other than the need for a level of cohesion in order for the piece to function (though Caryl Churchill might debate that need, at least on the basis of the unapologetically fractured Love and Information). My extremely vague understanding of science, composed mostly of what little I managed to absorb by osmosis during two years of living with a physicist, makes me want to suggest that patterns hold some degree of importance; patterns are what we seem to search for in the chaos, what we latch onto in order to explain things, as much in everyday life as in scientific research.

Therefore the emergence of a pattern from this particular amorphous collection of possibilities might speak to our (and Marianne and Roland’s) desire for meaning, narrative and the illusion of control. Michael Longhurst’s direction, which bleeds the scenes into one another and avoids too much explicit guiding of our reading, further encourages this almost inevitable mental process of forming connections. One external connection that my mind jumped to was Philip Ridley’s recent play Shivered, another masterclass in shattered plotting. His splinters of story seem to have been thrown about and pieced back together at random, yet an overall shape progressively emerges and simultaneously erases itself as suspicion is thrown on our very act of narrative reconstruction. Even the title of this play called Shivered to mind (a pertinent example of those coincidences that emerge from the chaos and that we swiftly bind together, perhaps?), recalling one speech about “illusory contours”: the patterns we identify in unconnected objects, such as constellations of stars.

As intriguing as these questions of chaos and connection are, however, the piece is at danger of falling prey to the inherent problem of endless possibilities. If there are potentially billions of different universes, with more spawned at every fork in the road, how is the decision made about what to show? How much to show? Due to the nature of its premise, the play is necessarily a tiny fraction of the idea it posits. There is a tension between the concept, which is seemingly limitless, and the conventions of the space and form in which it is being explored, which are decidedly limited. Perhaps it is this tension, ultimately, that makes the piece feel a little too delicate for the structures it is attempting to support. Constellations is pretty and hopeful and occasionally soars high, but it also nurtures the suspicion that, much like its accompanying host of balloons, its fragile containing structure is easily punctured.