Carmen 1808 – Union Theatre, London

Book and Lyrics: Phil Willmott

Director: Phil Wilmott

Music: Georges Bizet

Arranger: Teddy Clements

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

The original opera is a relatively bleak production. Death, loneliness and danger stalk throughout the love story at its core. This vibrant reimagining manages to somehow increase the shadow of violence and yet come out as a vibrant, energetic and charismatic show.

This reimagining takes the opera story as a base, but sets it around the execution of Spanish civilians and rebels in Madrid on the 3rd of May 1808 – an event immortalised by painter Francisco Goya, who becomes a character in this piece. Carmen is an asset to the revolutionaries, fighting the French occupation of their country after the Napoleonic wars. Her ability to extract information from the pillow whispers of soldiers and officers is key to the intel operation, and her closed off heart means a certain ruthlessness about her activity. The Spanish are shown by assorted whores and factory workers as well as students, the army by two representatives throughout. A relatively small cast but one that admirably helps take Carmen from cold-hearted spy to lovestruck dreamer.

When cutting the grand story of Carmen into 90 minutes it’s understandable that you will have to squeeze a few things, but some dialogue explaining character background (like Carmen’s autobiography) could be done better. There’s also a song about how Napoleon’s army is French – combined with hammy accents – which feels unnecessary.

For the rest of the singing, and especially, this cast with many making their London or professional debuts are just fabulous. There’s a lot of teeth and smiles during the dance numbers, which can be jarring when the context of poverty and violence is considered – but the vitality and quality in the execution of Adam Haigh’s choreography is excellent. Alexander Barria as the painter Goya, a sort of embedded narrator to proceedings, is the sombre note of reason balancing out the rest of the cast’s energy – cutting through everything else with gravitas and reflection and keeping the musical grounded.

Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s set superbly constructed – once seen it’s hard to imagine the musical or indeed the opera existing in front of any other backdrop. Combined with the artful lighting from Ben Jacobs and Teddy Clements’ music (who also plays as piano accompanist) the surrounds for the action are close to perfect.

Another ambitious project from Phil Willmott – taking its place as part of another three-part Essential Classics season. Inspired by the Catalan fight for independence, Goya’s artistic expression of what civil revolution creates and the power of the original opera – this is an evening that should excite on many levels.

Runs until 10 March 2018 | Image: Scott Rylander


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A vibrant reimagining

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