armen feel the noise
The Edinburgh Festival Theatre has proved its strengths as a venue for variety, dance, opera and theatre — now it‘s time to test it out with a musical. Mark Fisher talks to Simon Callow about his production Of Carmen Jones.
Simon Callow is nothing if not eclectic. Just back from Thailand where he‘s been playing the Under- Secretary ofthe United Nations in Street Fighter the latest movie vehicle for Jean Claude Van Danime. he‘s been working on the touring version of his production of Carmen Jones (for which he won an ()livier Award for directing). while his biography of Orson Welles is being made ready for publication next February. As soon as Carmen Jones is up and running he plans to make a stab at Broadway. directing a new play by Bernard Slade. Ask him what he likes doing best and he‘ll tell you it‘s which ever one he‘s not doing at the time.
Since coming to attention at the Traverse in the early70s and making his mark in London as Mozart in the National‘s Amadeus. Callow. now 45. has diversified without cutting down on his success rate. His on-screcn film credits include A Room with a View and Maurice; he was the director of both the West End and Broadway premieres of Willy Russell‘s Shirley Valentine; and in I990 be made his film directing debut with Ballad of the Sad Cafe starring Vanessa Redgrave and Rod Stciger. Throw in his three books published to date — Being an Actor. Charles Laughton and Shooting the Actor — and it all adds up to a quite formidable output.
His multi award-winning production of Carmen
Jones. ()scai' Hammerstein‘s transposing of Bi/et‘s Carmen to black America. was born not only out of a desire to stage a great rnusical. but also out of a mission to let black performers be seen centre stage for once. The aim was not as easily realised as you might expect. Centuries of marginalisation of black culture meant that when Callow first came to audition performers in Britain the talent pool seemed to be depressineg small. ‘The producers and l have always felt that the opportunities for black artists in this country are desperately cir'cumscribcd.‘ he says. ‘We wanted to cast a show that was entirely cast of black people in which negr‘itude is not at all an issue. It was an astonishing thing to have done in l942 and. rather embarrassingly. it is still an astonishing thing to see on a British stage. We went out to look for black talent and we found an enormous amount of willingness. an enormous amount of latent talent and a desperate lack ofexperience and training.‘
Asa result. when the original production opened at
the Old Vic in 1992. it had a cast that was only 50 per
. Callow on Carmen: “I'm just incredibly excited that now Hammerstein‘s work can be supported by a British company at international standard.’
cent British. Even in the short time since then. however. (‘allow has witnessed a remarkable upsurge of home-grown black talent. ‘What has to happen is that more black people get more opportunities because only then will they develop,‘ he says. ‘C‘armen Jones is the perfect proof of that theory — as soon as people see it being done they say. “Oh it can be done". Once the show was up. once it had proved to work. the people we had had to turn down went away, trained themselves and came back to us. and
by the end of the run in London we were totally cast from British performers. l‘mjust incredibly excited that now Hammerstein‘s work can be supported by a British company at international standard.‘
‘The opportunities for black artists in this country are desperately circumscribed.’
The production coming to Edinburgh is that rare thing. a touring show that is neither a pre-London try-out nor a post-London pale imitation. Callow has taken the opportunity to work further on the musical and believes it to be an improved show all round. As a director. he says. he is not interested in imposing his own stamp. but in doingjustiee to the writer. ‘I want to find out the ways that Cocteau is Cocteau- like. that Willy Russell is Willy Russell-like and Hammerstein is llammerstein-like. The idea of making Hammerstein like Callow or Hammerstein like Willy Russell isjust depressing to rnc.‘
And his admiration for Hammerstein knows no bounds. ‘l have to confess that when I went to see Carmen itself shortly after I‘d worked on this show, I thought. “Why are they doing it like this'.’ Why aren‘t they using the proper words?" He seems somehow to have thought himself so into the melodic life of the piece that it‘s almost as if the music‘s come after the lyrics.‘
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The List 9- 22 Septerriber I‘M-147