Baseless Fabric

Grimeborn Festival 2022

Reviewer's rating

The Baseless Fabric company exists to bring theatre and opera to public spaces and to give new audiences the chance to experience performances that they might not think of as “their sort of thing”. This updated version of Carmen, put together by Joanna Turner and Leo Geyer, is a brilliant example of how that approach can yield huge rewards. Having seen it on the stage of the Arcola, I would love to see how it works in the libraries, halls, and pubs of South London. With a cast of four and a band of three  – and a score stripped down to less than an hour – it provides a glorious mash-up of Bizet’s marvellous music and a modern take on the feisty and freedom-loving young woman who loves and then casts aside lovers who fail to meet her high standards. Of course, it loses all of the grandeur of the original  – but Joanna Turner’s re-write has plenty to say about the clash between desire and possessiveness in the TikTok generation.

Carmen is a supermarket check-out girl. Escamillo is her Instagram star ex-partner. Don Jose is the security guard who Carmen fancies. Micaela is Don Jose’s needy fiancée. The piece begins with a row between Don Jose and Micaela over when the wedding is to happen. Carmen begins to flirt with him but her ‘ex’ turns up, all white teeth and vanity, and assumes she will accept him back. In her fury, Carmen slaps him. Knowing her job is at risk, she asks Don Jose to wipe the CCTV in return for her sexual favours. He says yes. The second half begins with the affair already going sour over Don Jose’s controlling and coercive behaviour. Carmen decides reluctantly to return to Escamillo and Don Jose loses control. But there is a modern ending that finds another way to show the consequences of Carmen’s need for self-determination and Don Jose’s need for control.

Nearly all the big tunes of Bizet’s score are packed into this 60-minute performance – though sometimes sung by different characters and always with new words. Felicity Buckland, fresh from ENO, is a superb Carmen – her gorgeous mezzo voice is rich and full, especially in the lower ranges and, in the small Arcola space, her eyes often tell the story of her conflicting passions very eloquently. Jonathan Cooke as her Don Jose manages the problem of reining in a powerful tenor voice in this restricted space  – the way he floated the top notes at the end of the flower song was an object lesson in how to sing opera in small spaces. He also managed to catch that strange combination of weakness and hidden violence in Don Jose that makes him such a dangerous character. Nick Morris as Escamillo, the influencer, struts and poses for selfies and belts out his version of the Toreador song. Claire Wild, as a Micaela very unlike the Bizet version, does her best with a somewhat pallid character, clinging onto Don Jose but dazzled by Escamillo’s posturing.

The orchestration of this new version for violin, bassoon, and accordion is inspired and the players are excellent. As ever at Grimeborn, an almost total lack of props and scenery seems irrelevant as the singers and players tell the story so effectively in words and music. The things that are missing – the smugglers in the mountains, Carmen’s pals playing with the tarot cards, the dance scenes – will worry some Carmen fans but the very modern take on the story will hopefully draw new people to this wonderful opera.