Huddled outside in a square hidden by buildings, the audience is confronted by blaring discordant music booming out from giant speakers. Amidst the darkness, two men on stilts wearing leather masks and billowing orange trousers stride into the square. Shining searchlights into the audience’s faces, these stalking figures with their cracking whips are terrifying.
After the opening scene, an excerpt from W.H. Auden’s The Refugee Blues is played over the speakers; written in 1939 about the plight of Jews in Germany, the words still haunt and resonate today. The specific conflict that inspired the production, however, was the war in Bosnia in the 1990’s, and the associated ethnic atrocities that took place.
The scenes that follow use analogies to show how civilians caught in conflict can suffer, and yet also how conflict can cause people to inflict suffering on one another. In one scene soldiers spit wine over a bound woman – an obvious metaphor for rape – and yet they are soon drunk, and are thinking about their girlfriends back home. It is a brutal scene that perfectly encapsulates the duality of soldiers in warfare when it comes to their relationships with women.
One of the major elements used in this production is fire. It destroys and ravages all around it, but it really ups the spectacle especially when combined with the very talented stilt walkers. The set is minimalist and stark, with metal, ropes and clothing making up the majority of the props used. And so the mostly-empty square is dominated by an ominous building at the back where people are herded to and from.
On the day I saw the performance it was extremely windy, making it impossible to hear the few words actually spoken by the cast. Luckily, there is only one scene with spoken words, and the meaning was not lost. The wind also meant that some of the items on fire were less controlled than they might ordinarily be, and sparks were flying everywhere – which I thought was rather apt.
The production may now be over twenty years old, but it is as relevant today as it has ever been, with warfare and ethnic cleansing still continuing throughout the world. Indeed, with time has come the ability to hone the production; it is concise, at only forty-five minutes, but each point hits home with brutal efficiency.
Carmen Funebre is spectacular. Its spectacle and power are haunting, and the show will remain with you for a long time to come.