Recreating Carmen: In Conversation with Director Christopher Renshaw

Since her “birth” in 1845, Carmen has experienced a variety of transformations and conquered every possible art form such as opera, theatre and film. What makes this character so attractive?

Christopher Renshaw: Independence and lust for life are so very attractive. It is Carmen’s determination – that her inner and outer freedom will never be compromised – that makes her a force of Nature and a unique free spirit. She refuses to abide by social or sexual norms.

Carmen is a rebel without regard to consequences; she will never surrender her freedom of choice or independence of spirit. Perhaps much of her popularity is derived from audiences, who may long to live more like Carmen? What is so important to me about Carmen is she that never allows her self to be victimised. However tragic her fate, she walks towards it of her own freewill, declaring herself to be, as she always wanted, “la Reina de la Havana”

In your version, the character of Carmen is transformed again since the plot takes place in Cuba. How did this idea come up and how did it become a reality?

Christopher Renshaw: I was very inspired by the wonderful Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte film 1954 Carmen Jones, and had been wanting, for quite a while, to find a way of transposing the action, and indeed the music, to a Latin American setting. It was only when meeting Jon Lee in Havana in 2013, that finally everything clicked. As soon as I landed, and was taken to La Guarida, the extraordinary and sensually evocative building where “Fresas y Chocolate” was filmed, I knew straight away how Carmen Jones was to be reinvented.

Carmen La Cubana in rehearsal

For your artistic process, you were able to spend several months in Cuba. How was it to work with the Cuban creative and artists? Did this experience influence your concept and the way you would direct the piece?

Christopher Renshaw: The development process of Carmen la Cubana was a real privilege; not a quick ‘gringo’ trip, but a chance to live in Havana, 2 among her dancers, musicians, singers and actors and to find a way that our show could evolve from within. When we finally staged our first workshop in 2014, it felt that Carmen la Cubana had truly been claimed by the great Cuban artists that had helped create it. Those first four performances on a dilapidated wharf in the Old Port of Havana still remain at the show’s soul.

What exactly is the “Cuban flavor” of Carmen la Cubana?

Christopher Renshaw: Carmen la Cubana has more than a Cuban flavor. It breathes Cuba. Every actor, singer, musician and dancer is from Cuba, and they bring with them an authenticity that is unique. The story of a free thinking, sexually liberated women struggling to retain her independence, while her culture explodes around here, fits the ethos of Bizet’s original opera like a glove.

What attracts you so much to Cuba and its people?

Christopher Renshaw: When you go to Cuba, the force of the people’s love for life hits you like an express train. You collide with an explosion of joy, sensuality, fun and above all else, music; it wafts from squares, alleys and widows. And what is particularly amazing and humbling is that the Cuban people can access such positivity in spite of the hardships anddeprivations their Country’s political history has bought them. Another huge influence on me was the Santeria religion, which is everywhere in Havana. This Yoruban system of beliefs had come to the Island with the slave trade, and so much of Cuban dance, rhythms and music owe its uniqueness to this intriguing and powerful religion. I was very excited to weave Santeria through the stories of Carmen and her friends.

A scene from Christopher Renshaw’s production of Carmen La Cubana

Carmen la Cubana is full of vivid acting scenes, singing and dance. However, the art forms resonate in a very organic way with each other. How did you and your team achieve this fascinating synergy?

Christopher Renshaw: My team and I just relaxed and went with the flow! There is so much talent in the room at rehearsals and so much energy and 3 inspiration to be harnessed, that it is all there to be taken and enjoyed. If you just open your ears, eyes and soul to what is in front of you, the production will take its own form.

The musical arrangements of Alex Lacamoire bring a new “attractive” sound to the well known classical opera melodies. How as the working process with him? And what makes his work for Carmen La Cubana so unique?

Christopher Renshaw: Alex Lacamoire is one of the best musical brains on Broadway and he is also proud of his Cuban heritage. When I asked him if would like to develop the score of Bizet’s opera in the Cuban style, he was very keen to participate. We spent many hours together in his studio in New York before we went to Havana, where he was able to do ‘live’ arrangements with a Cuban band. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life – to witness what Alex and I had dreamed, as it burst to life in front of our eyes and ears. Carmen’s personal concept of freedom resonates in the atmosphere of the Cuban evolution.

How important were the historical aspects for your piece?

Christopher Renshaw: Personally I am completely obsessed with Cuban political history and especially about the events of 1959. But I didn’t want Carmen la Cubana to be just about politics. I wanted it to be about a woman, thrillingly ahead of her time, being trapped and confronted by the political and social turmoil in which she lived. The production tries to steer clear of taking political sides and to show a country and culture in massive upheaval, with the people, as ever in these situations, just trying to live their lives and to play them out as well as fate allows them.

Carmen La Cubana runs at Sadler’s Wells from 1 – 18 August. Tickets are available now priced from £15 by calling the Ticket Office on 020 7863 8000 or book online.