In Mr Carmen, Russian company AKHE delves into Mérimée’s original text (yup… the one Bizet simplified for his opera) and comes up with hands full of papier-mâché and rose petals, smoke, fire, string and knives, blood and vinegar. This is a messy show. Literally messy – the stage slowly littered with detritus as the two performers duel it out – and figuratively messy – the action decomposing before your eyes as the task of the piece resolves to be impossible. With their dripping hands, the performers attempt to free themselves from death, and their success is up for interpretation.
Two men in strange, quasi-medieval, quasi-enlightenment, quasi-retirement home garb are locked in an existential battle of the self. One cheers for José, the other for Carmen, but these symbolic characters are not fighting for anything attached to those names; it is the battle that is necessary, not the outcome. They invent ways, sometimes ingenious (the use of smoke in this show is truly extraordinary), sometimes banal (there is also a lot of general hand waving) to express the letters in their name of choice, and the production features a plethora of STUFF that eventually slathers everything the two men touch. They are alchemists and treasure-hunters, but their bounty is entropy. This is a show about disintegration, about futility. In the battle within the self, it is always the self that looses.
Difficult and subtle in its message, grotesque and jumbled in its method, this is not an easy show to watch. I, in fact, became panicked that one of the performers was going to lose a fingertip (there are very real, very sharp knives used in the production, and actors who don’t seem completely attached to their digits or their wits). But the piece is not aiming for ‘easy’. In this case, a three star rating is not strictly accurate. For the most part, an audience member will either hate this show, or love it – either be horrified by the form, or be moved by its transgression. But I think it’s worth a shot for everyone to see for themselves. However, I would encourage you keep this in mind: if an artwork’s form isn’t challenged, innovation is impossible. We must push our expectations out to meet the bizarre if we are ever going to move beyond standard musicals and kitchen sink drama. Not for the faint of heart, Mr Carmen is one of those pioneering shows, sitting right past the edge of entertainment, with one foot firmly in the future.