The Grimeborn season at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston continues with an intriguing re-telling of the story of Carmen. The writer Dan Allum has drawn on Bizet’s opera but also on the novella by Prosper Merimee which was Bizet’s source. Allum then provides a contemporary setting where the central themes that he draws from the drama – jealousy, lust, and the yearning for a way of life that offers excitement and a kind of freedom – find a relevant context. Domestic violence, racist abuse, and the ‘shortcuts’ that law enforcement agencies sometimes take are all themes that seem very current and they too are woven into the plot, all crammed into 75 minutes of words and music.
This is the sort of work that defies easy categorisation. Though it is part of the Grimeborn Opera Festival, it is as much a musical as an opera – it reminded me of a genre labelled ‘ballad opera’, the most celebrated example being The Beggars Opera. The work is mostly in dialogue but at key moments of the drama there are simple folk-like songs sung by a main character but with simple harmonies provided by other players. The musical instruments are guitar, fiddle, and accordion, played by the actors themselves – the impact is sometimes very powerful but the overall effect is patchy and the noise and fury sometimes mask the meanings.
Carmen and her husband Garcia live on a traveller’s site where they scratch a living from legal, and illegal, activities. An outsider, confusingly called Don Jose, arrives. He claims to have recently left the army and he persuades Carmen, who is clearly intrigued by this good looking ‘gadje’, to persuade Garcia to let him join the gang. He demonstrates real prowess at cage fighting and says that his skill is down to his army training. Garcia comes to realise that his hold over Carmen is threatened and this leads to a tragic ending.
The best thing about this production is the vigour and energy of the performances of the five young actor/singers. As Garcia, Carmen’s angry husband, Michael Mahony oozes threat and his forceful persona dominates the traveller’s site and its hapless residents. Adam Rojko Vega as Don Jose treads a fine line between clean-cut outsider and sleazy new recruit to the gang – but his edgy performance is vindicated in the plot twist that ends the drama. Candis Nergaard’s Carmen is a finely balanced portrayal of a woman torn between loyalty to her roots and desire for a new man and the new life he seems to offer. Writer Dan Allum has clearly chosen not to echo some of Bizet’s ideas about Carmen as a women who fascinates because she has chosen to live by her own rules and to flout the consequences. So Nergaard plays her as the passionate and risk-taking woman torn between the Romany community and her glimpsed new future. Christina Tedders and Gareth O’Connor complete the team and make fine musical and physical contributions to the drama.
Given the limitations of the basement studio at the Arcola, setting the whole drama in and around the metal cage for the fist-fights is understandable – and provides echoes of the bullring of the opera. But it shapes the action rather more than seems wise and there is just too much rushing and shouting as the cast hurtle across the ring, bouncing from edge to edge. It enhances the scenes that build up toward violence but it provides a less welcoming atmosphere for the gentler scenes. This show is a brave attempt to re-imagine Carmen as a victim both of male brutality and a racist state. Though it provides moments of dramatic power, it is perhaps too much to ask that it should escape the shadow of Bizet’s masterpiece.