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BWW Review: LA BOHÈME, King's Head Theatre

An LBGT take on Puccini's tragic opera

BWW Review: LA BOHÈME, King's Head Theatre BWW Review: LA BOHÈME, King's Head Theatre

There is a tendency for contemporary opera directors to reflect on the cultural legacies of operas and deconstruct them in new productions. This is apt for operas that espouse problematic cultural sensibilities and outdated attitudes. Standing next to certain works by Wagner or Puccini's own Madam Butterfly for example, La Bohème seems to be a comparatively innocent story of love and loss. But this has not stopped David Eaton and Philip Lee from penning a new version of Puccini's opera that updates the bohemian squalor of 1830s Paris for present day London and, crucially, swaps Mimi's gender.

But rather than an LBGT interpretation of Puccini's opera, discovering new meanings or creating a new lens through which to understand the original, this is just a veneer placed over a trimmed narrative and score. Instead of a full orchestra there is just a lone piano. Instead of a two and a half hour running time, this version just clocks in at just over an hour.

Daniel Koek's Robin (in lieu of Rodolfo) is still a struggling writing. But instead of penning theatre reviews to pay the rent he writes erotica. He meets Philp Lee's Mimi, a homosexual man adopting "Mimi" as a moniker, through a dating app, not through borrowing a candle. Both give strong vocal performances and gracefully fill the space with their presence, but there is often an emotional discord between the music and their language. The contemporary references and parlance brims with sharp observations and wit, but the emphasis on realistic language forgoes the possibility of creating the emotional depth that make the doomed lovers' story so tragic. Within a few minutes of meeting and a heartfelt rendition 'Che gelinda manina', the two are desperately in love. The spirit of the original is just about there, but an only so much can be done in the short running time.

Director Mark Ravenhill emphasises the disease that haunts throughout both versions but does little to scratch beneath the surface of drawing attention the conceptual link between the original and this version. In the original Mimi has tuberculosis, in this version Mimi is a drug addict with a fleeting reference to being HIV positive. Robin, Matt Kellet's zestful Marcus (in place of Marcello), and Grace Nyandoro's boisterous Marissa (instead of Musetta) are decked out in hospital scrubs throughout.

At first it seems as if the production is set in a hospital, the set evokes a plastic-lined ward with a water cooler, noticeboard, and a life support machine which monotonously beeps as the audience enter the theatre. But references to pints at The Nag's Head (not the Café Momus) and Robin's flat obfuscate the setting, resulting in a muddled collage of images. It is only at the end of the opera when Mimi overdoses, that they are taken to a hospital and the set and narrative adhere to each other. But this is too little, too late.

Drawing parallels between Mimi's tuberculosis and HIV is an undeniably interesting comparison, but it is not enough to give the production a fully formed identity of its own. Those who are not familiar with the original opera may even struggle to grasp it entirely.

La Bohème is at the Kings' Head Theatre until 28 May.

Photo Credit: @thebrittainphotography

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