Carmen Disruption

Almeida Theatre, London

© Marc Brenner

© Marc Brenner

Inspired equally by Bizet’s opera, the lifestyle of opera singers, a German director friend and concern over the effects of social media on human relations, Simon Stephens’ Carmen Disruption turns out to be a very personal `take’ with mixed results.

For example, designer Lizzie Clachan effectively transforms the Almeida into a crumbling, faded crimson glory using backstage as part of the action. Audiences are invited to reach their seats via Carmen’s dressing room whilst negotiating a giant bull lying prostrate on stage. With its bare back brick wall, the reconfiguration is more `immersive’ than usual with the Almeida and gives a distinctly non-English flavour.

Which may be part of Stephens’ cunning plan. For this is an unashamed comment on present day Europe, a Carmen relocated where John Light’s Escamillo – the bullfighter now presented as a hedge-fund/investment buccaneer – expresses world-weary disillusion with the sameness of Europe’s capital cities peopled by lonely individuals but all looking for love and identity.

Who Stephens asked himself, would be the equivalent of the opera’s characters today– the singer, the bullfighter, the peasant girl and Don José? Perhaps the most radical realignment occurs with Carmen transformed into a narcissistic gay rent boy. Don José is cross-gendered to female, the wonderful Noma Dumezweni, whilst Micaëla becomes a wayward, suicidal student.

Stephens’s atmospheric script has some fantastic moments. But he doesn’t spare us modern life’s uglier traits with its Skype porn, selfies and graphic gay activity in a script and narrative that often feels unconnected.

Perhaps that was also Stephen’s intention since the isolation strangely induced by social media lies close to his heart. Michael Longhurst’s production too enhances this sense of dislocation. A brace of cellos replays some of the Carmen opera themes but with distortion whilst Sharon Small’s character of the Singer agonises about the boundaries between Carmen (sung by real opera singer, Viktoria Vizin, resplendent in Spanish costume) and her own identity.

Carmen Disruption too itself suffers from a sort of identity crisis. Is it theatre/opera/physical theatre? I rather enjoyed its sense of confusion and disorientation but sometimes found myself lost in its disjointed stories and ultimately couldn’t help wondering if Stephens himself hadn’t been led astray.

Carmen Disruption was commissioned and first produced by Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg in March, 2014

Carmen Disruption is at the Almeida Theatre to May 23, 2015; see

First published in Reviewsgate, April 2015