Carmen by Prosper Mérimée, dramatized by Dan Allum

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15-Minute Drama on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 6-10 January 2014
What to make of this new 15-Minute Drama version of the classic novella that inspired Bizet's famous opera?  Thematically speaking, it focused on the ways in which the eponymous heroine (Candis Nergaard) emerged from her modest background to become the centre of attention amongst the soldiers.  As she did so, she was perceived as simultaneously exotic yet dangerous - someone who could never "fit in" with the cultures around her.  This element of not belonging was cleverly underlined through the use of gypsy music (also by Dan Allum) that punctuated the production.
Carmen herself took advantage of her outsider status to master all those who encountered her.  She was the only one able to speak different languages - understood in this production as a knowledge of behaviour as well as words - giving her the power to manipulate everyone.  A song, a poem, or even an epigram was sufficient for her to cast her influence over others.  Whether this was "good" or "malignant" in purpose didn't really matter (as least for the listeners); we were asked instead to admire Carmen's virtuosity.  
In the source-text the narrator is quick to absolve himself of responsibility for Carmen's eventual fate ("The Café are to blame, for bringing her up as they did").  In this production the question of responsibility did not seem significant - even though Carmen met her expected end,. her influence lived on.  The outsider had in a sense colonized the inside, changing the dominant culture for ever.  Such points seem to have particular significance at this point in time - especially in Britain - with particular reference to the debate over immigration.  While many conservatives believe that the fabric of society will be "destroyed" for ever by the influx of new immigrants from Eastern Europe, others believe that their coming to Britain will change society for the good - in other words, have the same kind of effect as Carmen did in Allum's adaptation.
Such points emerged loud and clear in Charlotte Riches' production, but at the same time I felt that the central role had been somewhat misconceived. While I do not deny that gypsies can speak with accents associated with southern England (the writer Judith Okely wrote in her book The Traveller-Gypsies (1983) about one of her interviewees, who used this accent but claimed Irish ancestry in order to seem a more "authentic" gypsy), the accent has become commonplace in the media through soap operas such as EastEnders.  In Charlotte Riches' production, it seemed slightly difficult to believe in Carmen's status as someone socially and culturally different, when she spoke in such a familiar way.

Nonetheless, I think that everyone involved should be congratulated for bringing such a bold interpretation of the classic detail to our attention.