Reviewed – 13th February 2018
“unquestionably – in style, in subject, and intention – a revelation, if not quite revolutionary”
Under the railway arches in Southwark, across the river from the Royal Opera House where “Carmen” is currently running, a very different take on the famous story is taking place. This is the second of the Union Theatre’s 2018 Essential Classics series, presented by the Phil Willmott Company. “Carmen 1808” draws more from the original novella by Prosper Mérimée, yet retains the inimitable tunes from Bizet’s score. A further dimension is added by transposing the narrative into the Peninsular War and the Spanish uprisings against Napoleon.
The starting point is Goya’s painting, ‘The Third of May 1808’, and it is the artist’s vision of the horrors of war that pervades the evening. The starting point is also Goya himself who, as protagonist, watches, paints and comments on the action that leads to the horrifying climax that becomes his canvas. It is a device that is inspired, inventive and ingenious in equal measure.
Condensed into one act running at just over ninety minutes it is an extremely accessible production. There are no pretensions, nor grandiose rhetoric here; it is Musical Theatre. But it is Musical Theatre at its best. Once one has adjusted to hearing different words to the well-known arias, one can savour the flair of Willmott’s lyricism and Teddy Clements’ musical arrangements. The piano is the only prop, but with Clements at the keys and his musical direction of a uniformly strong cast it sounds symphonic at times.
Carmen is a gypsy freedom fighter, adept at seducing low-ranking enemy soldiers to learn military secrets and relaying them to the Resistance. Rachel Lea-Gray gets the mix of earthy pragmatism and fiery seductiveness down to a tee. She plays with the emotions of Captain Verlarde (Maximilian Marston) and Corporal Luis (Thomas Mitchells), two Spanish military commanders battling for her affections. That these two characters represent the original story’s glamorous matador, Escamillo and naïve soldier, Don José respectively is unimportant. The story has the strength to stand by itself. In fact, this staging is perhaps even more appealing to those coming to it fresh, without any knowledge of Bizet’s opera.
Carmen holds court over a group of Spanish resistance fighters, led by Blair Gibson’s scholarly Javier. With a seventeen strong cast the Union’s space is in danger of becoming cluttered, but Adam Haigh’s choreography is as tight as clockwork. Up close the effect is compelling. The pace hits the right tempo throughout as the music weaves between the dialogue. There are a couple of rare, clunky colloquialisms that pop up in the text, but these are swiftly forgotten and they do not succeed in tripping up the flow of the action. Each performer drives their character with a white-knuckled commitment that draws us in and along for the ride.
And so it ends with the painting too. It gives nothing of the story away to reveal that the final scene is a near perfect tableau of Goya’s artwork. The final line is given to Alexander Barria’s Goya himself as he steps out of the action and looks at his creation. What he has witnessed, he reveals, is the trigger for his descent into madness and despair. Not so for the audience, however. Despite the grim epigraph, the dynamism of the cast leaves us in a truly upbeat frame of mind.
Goya’s “The Third of May 1808” has been described by art historians as possibly “the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject, and in intention”. Although it would be perhaps too grand to describe this interpretation with equal fervour, it is unquestionably – in style, in subject, and intention – a revelation, if not quite revolutionary. This is a show for everyone, and I urge everyone to see it, before the run ends. Although I’m sure that won’t be the end of the road. This musical has to either extend or transfer to a larger space.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Scott Rylander
Union Theatre until 10th March