Could it be Bizet’s gorgeous score and the heartrending tragic tale that compels theatre-makers to recreate Carmen again and again?
This review includes spoilers.
When you hear the name ‘Carmen’ you automatically think of Georges Bizet’s operatic version, Spanish gypsy girls, bullfighters and a fiery temptress. That’s the traditional idea, anyway, but modern adaptations have taken the original French novella written by Prosper Mérimée and formed new and invigorating storylines.
I have seen standalone dance performances of Carmen, another opera basing its plot on the struggle of Don José coming out in the gay community and others twisting the ending to convey a different fate for Carmen. Could it be Bizet’s gorgeous score and the heartrending tragic tale that compels theatre-makers to recreate Carmen again and again?
Having experienced an unconventional production of Carmen at the Royal Opera House two weeks ago (see my review here), I was thrilled to hear that another production of Carmen was taking place South of the River. At the Union Theatre, director Phil Willmott had begun his third Essential Classic series focusing on the writings from the past, which concern us today. Paying particular attention to the last few months where protestors are calling for Catalan independence, Willmott fixed the story of Carmen into the context of Napolean’s oppression of the Spanish people during the Peninsular War
There are two things you need to know about Willmott production Carmen 1808: one, is it not an opera. It is a musical theatre arrangement, which includes brand new lyrics and songs, but still keeps the familiar music numbers intact. Secondly, our leading character is not Carmen. It is Spanish artist Francisco de Goya who painted ‘Third of May, 1808’ depicting the battle at Medina del Rio Sec in Spain. 3,500 people were murdered by a firing squad under the order of Napolean. It was these horrific events that caused Goya to experience nightmarish visions which led him to his ‘Black period’ with works of a bleak and oppressive hue. Alexander Barria performs the role of Goya admirably, and he has a standout voice. I can’t deny how well suited his acting prowess would be in a production of Les Misérables. There you go, I said it!
Carmen, as we know her, loves who she wants whenever she pleases and breaks hearts without any regrets. Rachel Lea-Gray’s Carmen, however, has a purpose. She pretends to fall in love and tries to uncover military secrets. She uses her sex appeal and seduction skills to gain the trust of Spanish corporals, yet she falls in love with Captain Verlarde, performed by Maximilian Marston, and her mission falls apart. Her Carmen is passionate, smart and caring for both her country and love for Verlarde. Gray has great command for the stage. Watching her dance and sing all at once, you’d think it would be a difficult role to play, but she makes it seem effortless.
Marston as Velarde also gives a convincing portrayal of a man who sacrifices his good name for a life as a corporal to defend Spain. Together with Gray, they create a significant relationship, which symbolises the only virtue in the midst of war and chaos. This is most telling when they sing a sweet duet together in the intimate space. Thomas Mitchells’s light-hearted Corporal Luis is cheeky and hilarious, yet when needed Mitchells knows how to project his voice and cause the stage to stand still. He acts as a low-class fellow corporal to Verlarde. See him fall weak for the ladies, get a bit tipsy, and bring on the seriousness when he is on the job, enforcing the city curfew.
Javier Rizal is the leader of the resistance, which is an interesting match for Blair Gibson. He has a strong accent from Edinburgh, but that’s what makes his presence and charm unique. He sings a letter Verlade wrote to Carmen, and I still remember his performance today. It was sweet sounding, touching, and delightful. Josephina performed by Charlotte Haines is the ultimate betrayer. Her character is Micaëla from the original Bizet opera, except Willmott turns the table around and makes her the trickster that fools Verlade and the people who end up walking to their deaths. Vocally Haines has a high range. In some moments her voice sounded wobbly, but this is a singer with great potential. I have no doubt I’ll see her on stage again, singing big roles.
Teddy Clements is our only musician and musical director that captures what would normally be heard by an orchestra in a concert hall. On the piano, he drives the music with tremendous intensity, tenderness and ardour throughout. The rest of the cast – a stronghold of seventeen trained artists in musical performing arts – are agile and tenacious. Their boundless enthusiasm and energy to sing and dance to stylish choreographies devised by Adam Haigh are praiseworthy. I should point out that The Union Theatre’s stage isn’t the largest either, but the entire cast are dynamic from start to finish and find a way of fitting in all of the action. The final scenes are heartbreaking and tender. The way the show ends is quite a magnificent moment. Carmen 1808 is a thrilling 90 minutes of high energy theatre with music you’ll know and songs you’ll learn to love.