When a performance ends and you are sitting next to a gentleman who declines to lift a hand to applaud, even though he has just witnessed five of the most striking performances likely to be seen in London this year, you pretty well know that the play is going to divide opinions. If the said gentleman had come expecting to see something akin to Coward or Ayckbourn, then he is entitled to feel disappointed, because Simon Stephens’ vision of a dystopian present seems a likely challenger to Mr Burns, seen at the Almeida a year ago, to become champion for polarising views. In the case of Burns, I voted with the nays, although things could have been different had it been cut to the same length as this (90 minutes straight through); on this occasion, I go with the ayes. It is not often that we are asked to walk to our seats across the stage, edging our way around a near-dead bull, but this unnerving entrance gets us to expect the unexpected. The setting is the opera house in an unnamed European city, where Carmen is being performed. Stephens introduces us to five characters, the leading singer and four others, based loosely upon those in Bizet’s opera: Carmen (Jack Farthing) is a narcissistic rent boy, preening in a new designer shirt and planning his next pick-up; Don Jose (Noma Dumezweni) is a sorrowful cab driver, mulling over conversations with the son from whom she has been estranged; Escamillo (John Light) is a panic-stricken commodities dealer, struggling to retain an outer calm whilst filled with terror at the prospect of bankruptcy; and Micaela (Katie West) is a suicidal student, jilted by her boyfriend and getting out of her depth in the world of adult chatrooms. The singer (Sharon Small) has just flown in and is becoming increasingly disorientated, unable to remember the simplest facts about her life without reference to her smart phone, only able to survive thanks to a suitcase packed with prescription drugs. The five are joined on stage by a soprano (Viktoria Vizin), two cellists (Jamie Cameron and Harry Napier) and the aforementioned bull. They go about their business, absorbed in their own thoughts, only fleetingly aware of each other and the rest of humanity; they talk of smell and touch as if these senses had been newly discovered. A traffic accident between the opera house and the river disrupts their day and brings them to the same scene, but they never connect to each other. Stephens’ theme is solitude, developing the view that we are all at our most isolated when in crowded places, in the middle of bustling modern cities. Such a metaphysical concept can only be conveyed successfully if the writing and the direction are in as complete harmony as they are here. Stephens writes intercut mini-monologues in blank verse, stark and vividly descriptive. Michael Longhurst fills his production with haunting imagery that is balletic, operatic, poetic, hallucinatory and more, centring around the symbol of human brutality which lies at the centre of an otherwise bare, half-lit stage throughout. An astute use of music and a surtitles board with a mind of its own add to the effect. Rupert Gould’s Almeida has gone astray a couple of times recently, pursuing its policy of bold programming, but this time it comes up trumps.
Performance date: 16 April 2015