The Olivier Award-winning producers of La Boheme present an unadorned, compelling and trenchant take on Georges Bizet’s masterpiece, Carmen. Camille Lapaix reviews:

Bizet’s Carmen has had a longstanding reputation in the opera world for breaking conventions, settled as it is on the tipping point between opéra comique and post-Romantic realism. Because of its renown, as well as the frequent adaptations it has undergone, Carmen has become open to transposition, reinterpretation and diverse variation. So to see it tackled by King’s Head Theatre, with its abiding reputation for stripping down the most complex pieces, is self-evident.

Reduced to its central doomed trio of Carmen, Jose and Escamillio, Mary Franklin‘s translocation from 1820 Seville to 2019 London works wonders. Nothing is lost, everything is transformed.

Carmen King's Head Theatre

Ellie Edmonds (image courtesy of Nick Rutter)

Carmen (Ellie Edmonds) works minimum wage jobs. While employed as a cleaner in a hospital, she gets caught stealing drugs and Jose (Roger Paterson), an embittered and enamoured nurse, chooses to take the blame for her. For Carmen, Jose goes to prison. He loses his job, his stability, his reputation. He even goes on the run, and yet still loses Carmen’s affections to a charismatic and cocky Escamillio (Dan D’Souza), now a Spanish football star playing for Arsenal. Carmen herself loses her life at the hands of this abusive relationship.

Franklin and Ashley Pearson’s libretto is nothing short of ingenious, tying up nudges to the original book while spinning brand new and modern words to the score, itself minimised to a single piano – an outstanding performance from Musical Director Juliane Gallant that retains the brilliance of the melody, harmony and atmosphere set by Bizet.

Carmen King's Head Theatre

Roger Paterson & Ellie Edmonds (image courtesy of Nick Rutter)

As Carmen, Edmonds conveys a relatable vulnerability often overlooked in the character. Her mezzo-soprano arias swing from emotional to comical, with a certified poise that allows her to show how adrift today’s women can be. We are not quite sure what we want, but whatever it is, it is not this.

Paterson, used to undertake imposing parts under the King’s Head Theatre’s wings, is credible, although his tenor vocals need more subtlety. His Jose is a convincing embodiment of manipulative and abusive partners – whiny, angry, defeated, pleading, violent.

But it is D’Souza who shines as Escamillio in this production. His part is clockwork, from his comic timing to the rise of an eyebrow and the use of his crooked smile. Cockiness looks good on him. But more than his acting choices, D’Souza successfully manages to convey his character through every note sung in a vibrant and velvety baritone. It doesn’t hurt that Escamillio gets the feminist stabs too – when Jose tells him that he won’t let him “have” Carmen, it takes a judgmental eyebrow paired with a “that’s not really a thing” to lift the heaviness of the dramatisation that’ unfolds in front of the audience’s eyes.

Carmen King's Head Theatre

Dan D’Souza (image courtesy of Nick Rutter)

Despite all its plaudits, this take on Bizet’s masterpiece leaves a bitter aftertaste, as the central character’s empowerment has been lost along the journey. Carmen is usually seen as the peak of seduction, a mastermind of manipulation who plays men like fiddle. She is epicurean, impulsive, hot-tempered and cold-hearted. She’s lovestruck and a femme fatale at the same time. When she dies, it’s triumphant, finally free and in the arms of the one she loves. Yes, she is murdered by an abusive past lover, but somehow it is still on her own terms. She runs to the confrontation and takes her last breathe with pride and in the arms of Escamillio.

In this production, Carmen looks out of her depth, in an abusive relationship with no way out. Her manipulative charms seem to have disappeared in favour of the depiction of a woman trapped. She doesn’t seduce Jose into breaking the law, merely hints at it – he chooses to do it by himself, bitter and enamoured as he is. She dies alone, a battered woman, one among millions.

King’s Head’s Carmen is a remarkable adaptation, but the 1875 original, with its three-dimensional characters, has lost part of its charm in translation.

★★★☆☆

Carmen plays at the King’s Head Theatre until 9 March 2019. For more information, please visit the venue website.