Carmen, Live or Dead

Carmen, Live or Dead
By Craig Harwood. Music by iOTA. Oriel Entertainment, Progeny Pictures and Orange Sky Creative. Directed by Shaun Rennie. Hayes Theatre, Sydney. April 29 - May 13, 2018

There’s often a moment in the first minutes of an unknown show that you fear it’s not going to be good. When it’s unconventional, the fear is even greater. Will I be stuck here for the next hour-and-a-half for a show that I really won’t enjoy?

That happened for me as Natalie Gamsu took to the stage as Carmen, the intersex love child of Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo. She is joined by a guitar player and violinist and belts out some strange melodies. Wearing a moustache, headdress, knee-high boots and black corset, Carmen is anything but conventional. And then she tells us we’re here to witness her death.

Thankfully, as with all good shows, this Weimar-esque cabaret suddenly clicks (perhaps not the show itself but at least for you, the audience). Carmen’s story and her jokes draw you in. Gamsu grows on you as a performer too. From the initial sparkle in her wide eyes to her loud, proud finale, she inhabits the role and makes her character quite likeable (though probably not endearing).

Carmen tells us frankly that she was born with a vagina but undescended testicles rather than a womb. She prefers the dated term hermaphrodite rather than the modern intersex and even asks the audience to join in a song about it. The music here is composed by iOTA, who’s created memorable and award-winning shows such as Smoke and Mirrors. The songs here aren’t as touching as in that show but they’re very entertaining and effective.

Carmen, Live or Dead is beautifully directed by Shaun Rennie, an emerging talent in musical theatre. He makes the small space of the Hayes even smaller, creating a vital intimacy for this confessional cabaret. The use of slides really helps to tell Carmen’s strange fictionalised story and bring the historical aspects alive (Kahlo and Trotsky had an affair but Carmen is imagined).

Gamsu is accompanied by two brilliant musician/ actors. Andrew Kroenert has arranged the music and performs it on guitar, along with the character Angel, Carmen’s love-interest. Stefanie Jones plays the violin, alongside a number of smaller roles, most of them mute.

This is not a typical show for the Hayes, an innovator and reviver of musical theatre in Sydney. It’s edgier than even the most obscure cabaret shows that have been staged here. It’s a very clever fringe show (that would work perfectly in the Spiegeltent. Carmen, Live or Dead won’t necessarily knock your socks off but will leave you feeling satisfied and perhaps even a little more open-minded.

Peter Gotting

Photographer: David Hooley

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