Simon Stephens’ intriguing unstitching of Carmen glows like the after-burn of a firework, its glitter spiralling earthwards into the dirt. It’s a fragmented piece, like a collection of echoes of Bizet’s opera rather than a straightforward reworking.
Stephens has populated an unnamed European city with characters from Carmen, or variants on them, many with their genders switched. Here Carmen, as played by the angular Jack Farthing, is a rent boy in skinny black jeans. The always engaging, Barolo-throated Noma Dumezweni’s Don Jose is a life-hardened cab driver. John Light’s Escamillo is a sharply suited banker type, while Katie West’s Micaela is a student who’s been rejected by her older lover.
The characters, each of them a little broken, each of them in some way laden, occupy the same world, the same sun-blasted streets and, for a moment, the same patch of pavement in front of the opera house. But they have no interaction, no real connection. They are all islands.
Weaving between them while trailing a wheeled suitcase across the stage, Sharon Small plays the Singer. This role was originally played by Israeli opera singer Rinat Shaham, whose experience in part inspired the piece. The Singer is a woman who travels the world, moving from hotel to hotel, stage to stage, inhabiting the role of Carmen. Hers is a transitional existence; she has lost her sense of landscape, one city bleeding into the next. Also occupying the stage is mezzo-soprano Viktoria Vizin, in classic Carmen garb-fringed shawl and bodice, shadowing the characters as she sings snatches of Bizet.
Originally directed by Sebastian Nubling at Hamburg’s Deutsches Schauspielhaus in 2014, the play has been refashioned by Michael Longhurst for the Almeida. Designer Lizzie Clachan has transformed the auditorium into that of a crumbling opera house, beautiful but decaying, Jack Knowles’ lighting church-like and burnished.
The audience enters the stalls across the stage, glimpsing dressing rooms along the way. There are bare brick walls and red plush seats, piles of rubble, a grand, glinting chandelier – and there, in the centre of the stage, the body of a bull, a gleaming black beast laid low. A dot-matrix screen, of the kind usually used for opera surtitles, hangs on one wall, feeding us text messages, tweets and status updates – an endless, screaming string of zeroes.
Longhurst’s production is rich in atmosphere. It is wine-dark and full of ache and yearning, but also elusive; it slips through your fingers. And while the play contains a few of Stephens’ weaponised lines, there’s nothing here that will gut you quite in the way his Sea Wall did. It’s far more of an impressionistic piece, its effect akin to the shimmer of a brush on a cymbal, the words mingling with the music as the world of the play unfurls.