Carmen Disruption is utterly unshakeable. The disruption doesn’t erupt but imperceptibly breathes its way into the audience, catalysed by words and visions that move so fast it’s hard to keep up. A narrative crammed to bursting with information, feelings and stories, it is never possible to focus solely on any one thing but you are absolutely caught in a moment with every single one. The disruption feels singular but it is a bombardment. The disruption feels like it is beelining for you specifically. But the lasting disruption emerges from this representation of a society that is ours, growing evermore isolating as technology slowly usurps human contact. Ironically and with heart-thumping emphasis we are experiencing the impending loneliness of humanity in a room, together.
Carmen, the famed and juicy opera, is of skeletal significance to Carmen Disruption’s plot. The bones of the characters deliver us their isolated monologues from their private islands that just so happen to be in the same city. Carmen (Jack Farthing) is now a narcissistic, Dorian Grey-esq rent boy. His tale is dark, driven by pace and wit. Farthing’s characterisation is flawless. His Carmen squirms with fluidity: poetic, smutty and entirely human. Don José (Noma Dumezweni) has also undergone a gender swap: a female cabbie who facelessly drives through a faceless European city, guarding the secrets of her story the pains, the necessary drive and the longing she feels towards her long since deserted son. Dumezweni is intense, gripping us as she manages to balance between danger and need; guarded and loving. Escamillo (John Light) is a directionless futures trader whose sense of humanity has been rammed to the side in the adding of zeros to pound signs. Light shifts from being a man defined by a suit, hard and interchangeable, to fearful with reinstated emotion. Peasant girl Micaela (Katie West), a suicidal student, is heartbroken as she is dumped by her much older married tutor. West is driven to that level of familiar despair without human contact, by a relationship built in a virtual world, instigating the very real fear that our most prized human emotion is now possible without any physicality.
Sharon Small plays The Singer, unidentified, a character who grapples with the loss of her identity. Travelling from city to city, as they blur helplessly into one, she loses track of where she ends and her part begins. It is through Small’s eyes and ears that we experience Carmen Disruption. We become a part of the dereliction of human identity, of European identity, of the identity we have built through technology in place of interaction from the off. We are brought into the auditorium via the stage, passing the dressing room, treading on the rubble of the stage and avoiding the horns of the giant dying bull that breathes its last deep breaths centre stage. We have no choice but to accept that we are a part of it, that we are in it together. From the stage we see what the actors see, an auditorium, beautifully designed by Lizzie Clachan to look like a European opera house; all plush with velour but crumbling. The exposed shell of the theatre put before us and framed by rubble, broken bricks and one intentionally jarring LED, displays that virtual world, all shiny and new, that defines us. We are involved. This is a play as much about us individually as it is about The Singer.
Director Michael Longhurst has taken Stephens’s remarkably human script and nurtured its rhythm, thrusting it into crescendo and coaxing us in with diminuendo. Two omnipresent cellists underpin the narrative hauntingly and Viktoria Vizin operatically drives the human element home. Vizin emotionally embodies the power of Carmen and smack us with all the intensity that music can offer.
Stephens has prophetically predicted a future in isolation, where emotions are magnified in the tunnel vision of existing only as ourselves. He has done so beautifully with a stellar cast who have finally taught me what people mean when they say ‘master class’. It is impossible to detach yourself from Carmen Disruption but it disrupted my attachment to myself. I genuinely felt as if I had become separate, having to cling on to the narrative for dear life. I can’t remember ever having experienced theatre so heart-grasping before.
Carmen Disruption is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 23 May. For tickets and more information, see the Almeida Theatre website. Photo by Marc Brenner.