Ah, the classics. As everyone knows there are two types of performances that involve people singing on stage. There is opera – grand stories, big voices, elitist and not for the plebs – and there is musical theatre – shallow plots, jazz hands, available to the saturday night, ‘gotta catch a show crowd’. And as everyone really knows, the last sentence is rubbish. Opera can be accessible and musical theatre can be amazingly deep in plot and composition. And, of course the two genres can be mixed which is precisely what Phil Willmott has done with Carmen 1808 at the Union Theatre.
Spain in 1808 is under the control of Napoleon Bonaparte and his troops. Our narrator, the painter Francisco Goya (Alexander Barria) sets the scene. The Spanish nobility have accepted France’s rule and the French army – along with their new comrades in the Spanish army – ensure that there is no insurrection from the masses. However, rebellion is in the air on the docks, in the cigarette factory and among the student population. Things get worse when Corporal Luis (Thomas Mitchells) posts a notice informing the people that a curfew will be in place from tonight. The revolutionaries realise this must mean something and Javier Rizal (Blair Gibson) employs his best agent, the sultry gypsy Carmen (Rachel Lea-Gray) to find out what is going on. While she is able to get some information out of the rather simple corporal, she really needs an officer to find out the truth. Luckily a new Captain by the name of Velarde (Maximilian Marston) has just been posted to the area. Can Carmen work her magic on him or will Velarde, who comes from upper-class Catalonian stock, remain pure in memory of his former love the Noblewoman Josephina (Charlotte Haines)?
Now, Carmen and I go way back. This was the first opera, at the ENO, the first Matthew Bourne piece (The Car Man) and one of the first musicals (Carmen Jones) I saw, so I have a deep affection for the feisty gypsy and woe betide anyone that plays around too much with Bizet’s amazing music and story. So, the big question is, Did Phil Willmott – who wrote the book and lyrics as well as directed the show – keep me happy or not? The answer is a resounding yes he did. By moving the story to the French occupation of Spain and taking Goya’s, masterpiece “The Third of May 1808” as his inspiration, Phil has managed to create a totally different story while keeping most of the elements that make it so memorable. Carmen uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants and no man can resist her when she wants them, as both the Corporal and the Captain find out. But now, she is not just the ultimate ‘good time girl’. Now Carmen is a freedom fighter using her sexuality to defend Spain and thwart the French. I have to say I was taken by surprise by where Phil positioned the story but it really worked extremely well.
So, we have Bizet’s music – under Musical Director Teddy Clements – and Phil’s new words, the next elements in bringing the story to life is Justin Williams & Jonny Rust’s excellent multi-level set coupled with Penn O’Gara’s costume designs which really evoke a small part of Spain in the early nineteenth century. In fact, having just taken a look at the original painting online – got to love the internet – all of the costumes were pretty much spot on, particularly the French soldiers uniforms and shako headgear. The only problem I had with the production – and it is a perennial one in theatre – is too much atmospheric smoke. I personally think it’s rarely needed, but companies seem happy to pump it out like there’s no tomorrow.
This version of Carmen has quite a large cast – seventeen in total – for a relatively small venue but the performance space never seems overcrowded and the grand danced overture – with Choreography from Adam Haigh – sets the tone for the overall performance beautifully. Alexander Barria plays Goya as a narrator whose view of the world gets worse as the story moves to its emotional conclusion and is just great in the role. When not directly narrating the story, he is always there quietly in the background, observing and drawing on his pad. Rachel Lea-Gray is beautiful as Carmen and really knows how to turn on the sex appeal when it is needed. She has a great voice and seductive movement to her body, its no wonder poor Maximilian Marston’s tall, handsome but rather naive Captain Velarde cannot resist her, and to be fair, the two of them make a really handsome couple and, as my mother would say, would probably produce very attractive babies. Seeing Rachel and Maximilian together there is a real chemistry that comes over to the audience and makes it easy to see why both characters follow the path they do. Thomas Mitchells’ Corporal Luis is a character that could be overplayed. He is a buffoon who is also a jealous and vindictive man – even though he has no reason to be – and it would be easy to push one of these facets too far and make him annoying but Thomas keeps him in the right place and again, you can understand why his story goes the way it does.
Overall then I was highly impressed with Carmen 1808. Whilst staying faithful in many ways to the original, it is definitely a stand-alone production in its own right. With a running time of around 90 minutes straight through, the story moves at quite a pace but never loses anyone along the way. Whilst a couple of the voices were not as strong as they could have been, the sound was pretty clear all the way through and the new lyrics fitted the glorious music like a glove. The story is excellently told and the cast, on the whole, are first rate. Carmen 1808 is presented as part of the Essential Classics season at the Union and is a very welcome part of that season.
And, it has now overtaken Carmen Jones as my third favourite version of the story.
Review by Terry Eastham
This original musical will adapt the plot, score and characters of Bizet’s opera Carmen to tell a new love story set amidst events in Francesco Goya’s paintings of the Dos de Mayo Uprising in 1808.
Gypsy freedom-fighter, Carmen, is adept at seducing low-ranking enemy soldiers to learn military secrets during Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and relaying them to the student resistance. She takes great pride in never falling in love herself but as she attempts to trick an officer, revolution, treachery and violence grip the city and they are plunged into a passionate, destructive romance.
Set against a back drop of Spain’s Peninsular War with the French this Carmen is a celebration of revolutionary fervour, rebellion on the Spanish streets and the spirit of those who fight for independence.
The deeply troubled painter Francesco Goya, battling black depression and the loss of his hearing, wanders amidst student rebels, gypsy resistance fighters, invaders and deserters – and the events which so dramatically skewered his view of Madrid
Carmen (A Gypsy Spy) – Rachel Lea-Gray
Captain Velarde – Maximilian Marston
Francisco Goya (A Painter) – Alexander Barria
Amalia (A Street Girl and Carmen’s Friend) – Ellie Ann Lowe
Javier Rizal (Leader of the Resistance) – Blair Gibson
Josephina (A young Noblewoman) – Charlotte Haines
Corporal Luis – Thomas Mitchells
Manuela (A Cigarette Girl and Carmen’s friend) – Jodie Beth Meyer
Factory Workers, Gypsies, Street Walkers, Soldiers & The French
Mateo – Chris Britton
Maria – Bronia Pearce
Isabella – Jasmine Bradford
Carlos- Harry Powell
Sofia – Samantha Richards
Constanza – Kerry Way
Salvador – Pantelakis Christou
Fernando- Brett Sinclair
Vicente -Jack Malin
Director – Phil Willmott
Choreography – Adam Haigh
Musical Director – Teddy Clements
Set Design – Justin Williams & Jonny Rust
Costume Design – Penn O’Gara
Lighting Design – Ben Jacobs
Sound Design – Theo Holloway
A New Musical Theatre Adaptation
MUSIC by Georges Bizet
ARRANGED by Teddy Clements
BOOK AND LYRICS by Phil Willmott
ADAPTED FROM THE LIBRETTO by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
BASED ON A NOVELLA by Prosper Mérimée
DATES7th February – 10th March 2018