“Very sexy and quite violent, it is both super-cool and immensely gripping”.  Doesn’t sound suitable for the children, does it?  But we took our daughters to see La Tragédie de Carmen at the weekend.  This is a concentrated version of Bizet’s opera Carmen staged with all the blackness and inevitability and futility of the theatre of the absurd, retaining all the best music from the opera, just dripping with bloody emotion.

Carmen is no longer a gypsy.  She is the sort of fearless woman dessicated by nicotine, whose life has been hard, the tribulations or which are etched on her face, and who no longer gives a damn.  She will take what she can, use it, consume it, spit it out, and move on without so much as a backward glance over her shoulder from her steel eyes that do not let you in but only reflect your own folly.  She hangs out in books by Charles Bukowski, on Coronation Street.  She is Carla Bruni, stripped of all her wealth.  She is animal passion, untempered by faith or habit.  She is compelling.  She grinds her heel into the soft, needy Don Jose as she strides towards the hard, glistening pectorals of the bullfighter, Escamillo.  And within Don Jose red Jealousy rises up, an ugly unstoppable torrent of pent-up desire.

Trains drowned out the auditorium, shadowy burlesque figures faded in and out, seedy rooms with shafts of light slammed out by endless doors, keeping the badness in.  And through it all.  Carmen with her bird-like love.


The Spy was there, with his bird-like wife.  They had seen the very first productions of this version of Carmen, in Paris in 1981, and were so engulfed by the performance that they went again the next night.  Brook had his own theatre, the Bouffes du Nord, dark, intimate, down at heel. It is still open


The very English sounding Brook had been born in England to Russian parents.  Bryk becoming Brouck, then Brook.  He was educated at Westminster, Gresham’s and Magdalen College, Oxford and moved to live in France in the 1970s.  In 1971 he set up the International Centre for Theatre Research  (CIRT – Centre International de Recherche Théâtrale) with Micheline Rozan, funded by the French government and private foundations.  The troupe travelled the Middle East and Africa, performing and trying to extract the essence of theatre from the muliplicity of forms and experiences that were native to each country they visited.  He was inspired in his work by experimental playwrights, by Antonin’s Artaud’s concept of Theatre of Cruelty, that “Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphyics must be made to re-enter our minds” (Artaud, The Theatre and its Double).  Cruelty was not violence, but the courage to strip away polite masks and show the audience raw truth instead.

We asked Elder Daughter whether she had enjoyed it, whether she had recognised the music. She reminded us that she had played a Carmen medley on the same stage in a school concernt, and I saw her suddenly as older than she had been. On Monday morning she came home from school and told me she had watched Lord of the Flies (1963) and that it, too, had been directed by Peter Brook, and I felt glad that we had taken them to see La Tragédie de Carmen, that we had ignored their teenage protestations.

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser,
Et c’est bien en vain qu’on l’appelle
S’il lui convient de refuser.
Rien n’y fait menace ou prière,
L’un parle bien, l’autre se tait,
Et c’est l’autre que je préfère,
Il n’a rien dit mais il me plaît.

L’amour, l’amour,
L’amour est enfant de Bohème,
Il n’a jamais jamais connu de loi,
Si tu ne m’aimes pas je t’aime,
Si je t’aime prends garde à toi.

L’amour que tu croyais surprendre
Battit de l’aile et s’envola,
L’amour est loin, tu peux l’attendre,
Tu ne l’attends plus, il est là.
Tout autour de toi, vite, vite,
Il vient, s’en va, puis il revient,
Tu crois le tenir, il t’évite,
Tu crois l’éviter, il te tient.

Essay on La Tragedie de Carmen


Performances in Tunbridge Wells and Cambridge over the next few weeks …