“Darkly disturbing tragedy for the twenty-first century”
Hum the tune to the Toreador song and people will join in, as Bizet’s Carmen is one of the best loved and popular operas of all time. What’s often forgotten, however, is that it’s a miserably stark tragedy based around life; the notion that there’s no chance of a decent future so grab life now and look after number one. I’ve never seen this theme so accurately portrayed as in this modern version with words by Ashley Pearson and Mary Franklin. Mary Franklin is also the Director of this production at the King’s Head.
Whilst the first half felt a bit flat in places, the second half was a darkly disturbing display of misogyny, domestic violence, control and the juxtaposition between misguided love and pure hatred – especially in the performance by Mike Bradley as Jose. He is both mesmerising and terrifying in equal measures in the final scene (note to self – definitely swipe left on Tinder).
In Bizet’s original Carmen (deliciously sung by the captivating Jane Monari) has a menial job in a tobacco factory and Jose is a soldier. The parallel between these jobs in nineteenth century Spain and this new version’s adaptation which places Carmen as a hospital cleaner and Jose as an over-worked nurse, is really appropriate. This enhances and updates rather than changes the meaning of the story, and enables clever subtleties of production, such as act 1 being set in the smoking area outside of an NHS hospital. The use of curtains reminiscent of those used in a hospital ward to depict scene changes, including one displaying a no smoking sign over a bench and another showing a very depressing Esso petrol station sign, is an ingenious way of making the best use of the small stage and keeping the set both minimal and practical.
Continuing the transposition to a twenty-first century setting, Escamillio’s role as a Toreador has been replaced with that of an Arsenal striker. Again, this is totally on point as whilst being a WAG is now an economically-sound career choice for some, so a Toreador’s girlfriend would have been an example of social climbing for a woman like Carmen at the time the opera was composed. A momentary injection of lightness came when Dan D’Souza’s somewhat relaxed Escamillio sang the Toreador song as karaoke, only knowing a few of the words – cue laughter, as that’s the same for most of us.
This production is an excellent introduction to opera performed by a truly talented trio of singers that could grace any operatic stage. It also demonstrates how the great stories that opera tells are just as relevant today as they were when they were originally written. Forget pastiche, embrace this exciting and excruciating new adaptation, but don’t forget the anti-depressants.
Music – Bizet
Co-Librettist - Ashley Pearson and Mary Franklin
Director - Mary Franklin
Musical director - Juliane Gallant
Designer – Anna Lewis
Reviewer Deborah Jeffries is a PhD Researcher at the University of East London and Rose Bruford College. Her thesis is entitled ‘Legitimising the Victorian Music Hall’, and it contests the notion of legitimate versus illegitimate theatre. It also investigates theatre architecture, purpose and licensing. She has worked for Hoxton Hall and Wilton’s - two of the UK’s four operational Victorian music halls, as well as the more modern incarnation, Brick Lane Music Hall. Her MA in Drama from Goldsmiths explores the difference between music hall and variety theatre, and the place of each genre in modern popular culture. She has reviewed music and theatre across the UK for over 30 years.