Matthew Bourne OBE has a reputation in ballet so great that it precedes him even when he’s 3,000 miles away and facing in the opposite direction. He and his productions have accrued a truly incredible number of awards and accolades and it was therefore always unlikely that I was going to give The Car Man a bad review.
Bizet’s Carmen is one of the best known and best loved operas still being performed today, featuring music that many recognise without thought. It is a story of passion and revenge in which a beautiful, free-loving gypsy woman, Carmen, seduces a soldier, convincing him to give up his entire life to follow her. When she grows bored of the soldier and leaves him for the Toreador, he becomes maddened with jealousy and murders her.
In The Car Man, this simple story has been given an overhaul, switching up gender roles and adding different and more complex relationships. The scene is set early, with the curtain up before the audience enters, the dancers milling around Dino’s garage and diner in the ironically named mid-west town, Harmony, accompanied by the sounds of saws, motors and the original Carmen score playing on the radio. The lives of Dino, his wife and their friends are turned upside down by the arrival of a charismatic wandering man named Luca.
The score consists partly of Shchedrin’s 40 minute ballet suite from 1967, with the rest of the music composed by Terry Davies (The King’s Speech, Shakespeare in Love), all based on pieces from Bizet’s opera. Played almost entirely on strings and percussion, the score initially contrasts with the look and style of a 1960s mid-west America, but as the story gets darker and darker this dramatic musical style becomes increasingly fitting. The sound design and set are highly creative. Atmospheric noises are woven into the music, and the dancers’ own vocals are used frequently in the form of laughs, gasps, heavy breathing and incoherent shouts to create a more “real” experience. The complex set pieces contain many compartments, moving parts and props allowing for a wide range of interactions between the dancers and their surroundings.
Bourne’s choreography, as always, is stunning, hitting exactly the right notes, and wonderfully performed by a cast who are not only flawless dancers but also engaging, believable actors. Whenever two dancers are alone on stage there is an incredible chemistry between them, regardless of whether they are touching each other or even moving. The solo performances are the most impressive; each one feels like an improvisation piece fuelled by the emotion of the character or dancer at that moment, as if there weren’t weeks of choreography and rehearsing behind them. This, to me, is what makes brilliant contemporary dance.
This ballet tells a somewhat different story from the original opera, however, the key elements of Carmen, lust, jealousy, revenge, the Toreador and the bullfight, can all be identified. In her Habanera, Carmen sings of the untameable nature of love and The Car Man expands on this theme by exploring the fluid nature of sexuality, with multiple characters experiencing both homosexual and heterosexual relationships. The entire performance is overtly and sometimes graphically sexual, but this is handled well and they manage to portray a wide range of intimate relationships, from the hesitant first encounter between two young people, to a summer evening orgy (no seriously). It also features some unexpected, and not entirely necessary, full-frontal male nudity early on in the performance. Needless to say, this ballet is not recommended for children under the age of 16. The story also covers such issues as bullying, sexual humiliation and harassment, abusive relationships, and rape, the victims being male or female. The music and performances make these moments appropriately real and uncomfortable, and whilst the scenes themselves can feel a little gratuitous at times, they all have some bearing on the plot or character development, and the perpetrators usually face the consequences of their actions. It is unusual and impressive to see such dark and varied themes being tackled in mainstream dance theatre and I am glad it appears to have been done with some thought rather than for shock value. Despite the serious overtones, there are humorous moments (including a wonderful little pastiche of interpretive dance) that complement rather than retract from the story.
In the opera, Carmen is stabbed by her former lover for trying to leave him. In the closing moments he mourns her, claiming to still love her, possibly, though not in my case, inspiring pity from the audience. No one character in The Car Man can be considered the equivalent of the original Carmen, but a character that resembles her is also murdered after having been found to be unfaithful. This is not necessarily just the result of jealous revenge, however, as the character in question arguably does more to “deserve” death than Carmen ever did. During the characters’ reaction to this final scene, which is solemn and quiet, you feel no justification, indignation or even pity, only the tragedy of seeing so many people torn apart by their encounter with one man.
Bourne likes to push the envelope with his productions, both in terms of dance style and the themes of the story, and with The Car Man he does both to great effect. I was slightly surprised to find a significant number of empty seats at the first performance in Edinburgh. I sincerely hope the show sells out for the rest of its run because there isn’t anyone (anyone over the age of 16, that is) who shouldn’t be seeing this.
The Car Man is playing at Edinburgh Festival Theatre until Saturday 13th June.