May 03, 2015

Switch to Silent Mode for Carmen Disruption

Photo courtesy of the Almeida Theatre
             As I waited in the Almeida Theatre’s lobby before viewing Carmen Disruption by Simon Stephens and directed by Michael Longhurst, I perused my program. How coincidental that the very thing I was reading about paralleled a long time fear of my own: technology and its detrimental effects. Stephens, the award-winning playwright behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (reviewed on my blog here), wanted to channel how media alienates and disconnects human relationships. He was also intrigued by the way in which European cities all start to blur into one. The unusual medium that he chose to tell his story was opera, specifically Georges Bizet’s Carmen. While Stephens was listening to the music from Carmen on the Underground, he realized that people’s lives possess operatic elements and he set out to reveal the inner Carmen in all of us.

The singer (Sharon Small), photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             In the United States, 40 percent of people admit to being lonely, a number that has doubled in 30 years. In Britain, a registered charity is devoted to ending chronic loneliness. As Elizabeth Renzetti notes in the program, “It is the great irony of our age that we have never been better connected, or more adrift.” I second this sentiment wholeheartedly. In fact, some might say that my soapbox is talking about the way we use our phones and social media and how this is resulting in a society where we are more alone than ever before. Not only are we isolating ourselves from human interactions and relationships, but we are also forgetting how to forge those relationships in the first place.

             This is the age of dating apps like Tinder, where someone can say whatever they please while finding comfort in the protective aspects of their phone. Translate that to the real world, and suddenly, the same individual doesn’t have the confidence to recite the same line in person. Stephens muses, “How many truly fascinating conversations have you been part of, then pulled out of when you get a text message? We start to split ourselves off from other people.” This is a question we should all ask ourselves, yet it is most likely avoided because of what the answer might unveil. I could rant about this topic for hours, but I will spare you all and turn back to the matter at hand.    

Don José (Noma Dumezweni)photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Carmen appears to have been given a new burst of life in London at the moment. The opera is currently running at the English National Opera. I have never seen it in person, but after watching it for the first time on DVD, I was hooked. I recently attended a performance of Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man, which was a sensually modern retelling of the original through dance (review coming soon). Last but not least, the Almeida Theatre is presenting Carmen Disruption, where a disruption is exactly what we received.

             If you are unfamiliar with the storyline of Carmen, it is most likely one that you already know because it is rooted in love, jealousy, and human nature. The opera is based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. It charts the love triangle between feisty cigarette factory worker Carmen, solider Don José, and bullfighter Escamillo. She dangerously toys with the two men’s hearts until she is eventually killed by Don José when Carmen seems to favor Escamillo. Carmen’s death outside of the bullfighting arena coincides with Escamillo’s killing of the bull inside the arena.

 Carmen (Jack Farthing)photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Carmen Disruption alluded to this tragic ending with a silent but forceful character in the shape of a dying bull. The realistic-looking animal, with its chest heaving up and down, acted as an inescapable foreshadowing that could not be avoided throughout the entirety of the play. The performance had its own versions of the characters from the opera. This time around, Don José (Norma Dumezweni) was a hardened taxi driver, Escamillo (John Light) was a money-crazed global trader, Carmen (Jack Farthing) was a stunning, self-absorbed male prostitute, and Micaëla (who was supposed to marry Don José; Katie West) was a disillusioned teenager. Then there was the singer (Sharon Small), who travelled to different cities playing the role of Carmen throughout the play, and the mysterious chorus member (Viktoria Vizin), the spirit of Carmen.

Escamillo (John Light) and the symbolic, ever-present bull, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Vizin is an internationally-renowned mezzo-soprano and has played Carmen 100 times in 17 productions overall. As she belted out the songs and arias, the unexpected lyrics hung in the air: “We feel the skin of your telephone…” It is not the skin of others we feel anymore from genuine human contact. There is actually a cuddle service, where people can pay a lady for cuddles. To me, this is a sign of the times, a sad one at that. It is human nature to crave human contact, yet we just aren’t receiving it in the same way that we used to. The Almeida Theatre's productions always keep me on the edge of my seat, because they often deal with serious subject matter. While the typical show tunes of the West End are predictably feel-good, it can be a breath of fresh air to sink my teeth into something meatier with more substance.  

The spirit of Carmen (Viktoria Vizin) and Carmen (Farthing), photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             The permeating intrusion of technology was felt strongly throughout the play. An LED board flashed words at us throughout the play to indicate incoming texts or other messages. The singer was utterly anxiety-ridden without her phone and found conversation difficult. Carrying a suitcase of pills from location to location, she frequently said she would need to look up details or names she had forgotten by consulting her phone. In other words, she could not function without it.

             The paths of the unlikely characters would cross in the street. They were so fixated on their phones that they didn’t realize where they were going and almost bumped into one another. This reminded me of an excellent video I saw online, where the artist imagined a world where people never look up from their phones and what the consequences of that might be (watch it below).
Posted by StreetArtGlobe on Saturday, April 25, 2015

             We are increasingly living in a digital age, where if we don’t keep up, we get left behind. One of the lines in Carmen Disruption is that porn tells you more about a country than anything else. Micaëla started an online flirtationship with one of her teachers, where they would exchange sexual Skype encounters. All of these things are examples of being violated through a computer. Some people believe that cyber bullying cannot exist, simply because we can all turn off our computers or other electronic devices at any point. It is worth thinking about though that cyber bullying would not exist if we did not have access to such devices. Micaëla goes on to describe naked photos as honest, because that nakedness is the most honest thing a person can give of themselves. Photos shared online are there to stay and haunt you forever.

Micaëla (Katie West), photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             There’s a scene in Carmen Disruption where a boy on a motorbike was killed and the first thing that everyone did at the crime scene was take out their phones. To document this boy’s memory, complete strangers took selfies with his mangled body. While I was eating at a restaurant the other day, the couple across from me were barely talking to one another. Perhaps they had been in an argument, but the first thing the woman did when her dessert arrived was snap a photo of it on her phone. No doubt she will have posted that photo on some form of social media, exclaiming what a “wonderful” meal and time out she was having with her husband. The phone occupies an ominous space at the dinner table now. It’s the ultimate third wheel, but through the individual’s choice.

             There seems to be a disconnect in the way that we interact with others in today's society. Micaëla wanted someone to know her, so much so that they know what she does with her hands when she walks. When Don José visited her son, she was moved that he remembered how many sugars she took in her tea. She felt as though someone noticed her and thought about her. It’s about the way we make each other feel. It’s in these small gestures that we really get the feeling of knowing someone, not superficially, but really intimately knowing them. It’s hard to do that when we’re too distracted by our phones, when we’re in a virtual world that does not exist outside of this real one, a life that we only get the chance to live once.

Let me take a selfie, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             The standouts of the night for me were Farthing (Carmen), Light (Escamillo), and Vizin (the spirit of Carmen). Farthing oozed sexuality and self-importance to veil an underlying mask of insecurity. Light reminded me of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, speaking in the same monotonic, calculated way. Vizin beautifully and chillingly brought the play to life with her opera singing. Although the characters occupied the same stage space, they were each absorbed in their own bubble. The running thread throughout the whole play that connected them was the spirit of Carmen.

It's a shame I couldn't fit the man to the right of me with his iPad in as well...
             The singer became so linked to Carmen that she didn’t know where she ended and Carmen began. Carmen the lover, Don José the fighter, Micaëla the lost girl, and Escamillo the macho: there are elements of all of them running through each and every one of us. Depending on the circumstances, we choose who we let loose into the world. Stephens’ reimagined version of Bizet’s Carmen was awakening and different, a true theatrical achievement.

             I leave you all with one of my favorite YouTube videos called “Look Up” by Gary Turk. You might have already seen it, but I beg you to take its message to heart. Remember to look up, people. Who knows what you could be missing when you’re looking down.

             For a dose of disruption, book your tickets for Carmen Disruption until May 23rd here.
For another great YouTube video on the same theme, view Prince Ea’s “Can We Auto-Correct Humanity?” here. If you would like to share your opinions on the matters discussed in this blog post, I’d love to read them below!

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