No playwright gets under the skin like Simon Stephens. Sometimes, his writing needles an audience; sometimes, it bruises. Carmen Disruption is more like a hundred lashes: lacerating and persistent, but both punishing and pleasurable. It is a self-flagellating play that looks at the modern world as much with lust as with loathing.
Our complicity in capitalism – hate the system, love your iPhone – is often flagged up in general terms. Carmen Disruption does so in detail, unpicking the allure of consumerism, even as it describes the damage it reaps.
It does so with an extraordinary metaphor: Bizet’s Carmen – a gypsy woman fought over by two men, Don Jose and Escamillo. She has the same allure and does the same damage. Stephens, rather brilliantly, deconstructs and distorts Bizet’s opera into a searing critique of contemporary society with a counterpart for each character.
So Carmen becomes a teenage rent-boy – a peacock with an Essex accent – flaunting himself to all and sundry. Escamillo is a high-flying investment banker, dicing with financial ruin, who now needs $200 million pronto to avoid a crash. Don Jose – originally a footsoldier – is now a cabbie, pushed into petty criminality just to get by, while Bizet’s lost girl Michaela is a student, obsessed with her tutor, whom she sends a stream of sexualised selfies.
To these, Stephens adds another figure: an international opera star (Sharon Small) flying round the world to play Carmen for vast sums. She lives life on repeat, in identikit hotels in identikit cities, and spends so much time in character that she starts to lose her sense of self. Carmen herself stalks through the piece as well – glimpsed across city spaces by each character in the text and singing sharp bursts of Bizet in the room.
All this makes for a dense, intense piece that feels, both as writing and production, like a staged poem. Five individual monologues weave in and out of one another, and the characters, all restless and always travelling, feel like they might crash into each other’s lives at any moment. They could just as easily be miles away, though, in separate cities that all seem the same. It’s an atomised play about an atomised world – but the characters are no less connected than Bizet’s, only by the global economy, worldwide brands and ubiquitous technology instead of by love and jealousy.
Everything human seems to have given way here. Cities are made up of anonymous crowds and the world is run by machines. People turn themselves into commodities. The Singer is less an artist than a Carmen-o-gram, while the young, Jack Farthing‘s gyrating Carmen and Katie West‘s frazzled Michaela, trade on their bodies. Exploiting themselves and advertising themselves on social media, they all feel like they’re playing a part – constructed selves in a constructed world.
The battle, as in Bizet, is between Don Jose and Escamillo. Noma Dumezweni’s taxi driver struggles to get by precisely because financiers make money so meaningless, yet John Light’s banker/bullfighter lives the high-life among the jet-set opera crowd. Light plays him like a sharp-suited Terminator, the living embodiment of zombie banking, while a bull lies breathing in the middle of the stage, as if Wall Street hasn’t quite died yet.
There is far too much to take in at once and Stephens’s text is nothing if not over-ambitious, but if narrative gets mangled and ideas jostle for space, so be it. This is theatre you feel, first and foremost, and Michael Longhurst’s bravura staging takes a long while to shake off. Lizzie Clachan’s design, a crumbling gilt opera house, is exquisite to look at, but everything serves as a symbol. Imogen Knight’s choreography, which has individuals fall in step, is hypnotic and discomfiting, and Jack Knowles’s lighting conjures a cityscape from nothing. For better or worse, this is a show that demands a second viewing.
Carmen Disruption runs at the Almeida Theatre until 23rd May.