PROMPT CORNER 16-17/2007
 Carmen Jones
Royal Festival Hall
July, 2007

Writing this column at this time of year always seems to involve a combination of deep-level recollection and outright imaginative exercise.  Spending more or less the whole of August in Edinburgh as I do, and in that hothouse atmosphere seeing more than twice as many shows as are covered in this entire double issue (including the late extras at the back!), tends to twist one’s theatrical viewpoint into a different topology, at least for a while.  One of the most useful phrases I learned early in my career was a London editor’s term for the inexplicable fever that seems to descend on Festival critics: “the Edinburgh bends”.

Consequently, a significant degree of recalibration was required when I took a brief trip down to Bath and Stratford to review the second tranche of Peter Hall Company openings and the latest three in Michael Boyd’s Histories project for the RSC.  In theory, five shows in two days ought to have been a walk in the park compared to my standard Edinburgh regime of five a day; in practice, the abbreviated Fringe attention span (few theatrical offerings there are now even as much as 90 minutes long) took some overcoming.  My reviews reprinted later in the issue may demonstrate as much.  But it is always worthwhile making connections with extrinsic matter that may illuminate the subject at hand.  Victory at Bath, for instance, was not the only Athol Fugard premiere of the month; his Exits And Entrances was playing simultaneously at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh.  And, perfunctory and pessimistic as the Bath play may be, it was still more substantial than the kind of Afrikaner version of The Dresser offered to Fringe audiences, in which the two characters speechified at each other far more than they conversed.


A similar connection, slightly at an angle to the main topic but in the event extremely telling, was made by my companion at Carmen Jones just before I headed north.  Several reviewers have commented on the awkwardness of placing the orchestra in a pit centre-stage, so that the vocal and dramatic action takes place either behind them or on a narrow walkway in front.  But foregrounding the presence of the orchestra also made something else visible.  As my friend pointed out, the all-black cast was in stark contrast to what, on the night we saw the show, was an all-white orchestra (with the possible exception of one Oriental player).  Director Jude Kelly and designer Michael Vale had inadvertently made conspicuous the principal issue surrounding the work itself.

Whether Oscar Hammerstein’s modernisation of Bizet’s opera was motivated by audacity or patronising exoticism, a staging that largely keeps the black folk behind the whites and in a separate area really does make the whole exercise look like the tokenism it is so easy to interpret it as being.  If, say, Sherry Boone as Cindy Lou had gone for a rest to sit with the string section, it could almost have been another Rosa Parks moment.  I know that sounds flippant, but once seen, that distinction of skin colour between singers and players is impossible to ignore.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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