Review: Mr Carmen, Assembly Roxy (Venue 139)

IN A world of visual theatre often dominated by beautiful young performers of both sexes, Maksim Isaev and Pavel Semchenko of the St Petersburg-based Akhe Theatre cultivate an image that defies the stereotype.

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A pair of large middle-aged men with bushy beards, they look like a couple of Russian Orthodox patriarchs descending from a mountain monastery to offer us wisdom; yet in their eccentric, obsessive, deeply masculine way, they produce some of the most extreme and sensual image-based theatre ever seen on the Edinburgh Fringe, drenched in a deep awareness of Russian traditional culture, but also in a lifelong commitment to what they call “engineering theatre” and “a unique dream theatre of chaos”.

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Mr Carmen is a one-hour show about obsession, loosely inspired by the story of Carmen, or – even more powerfully – of her lover Jose. Around the four sides of the stage runs a little wire, along which a cardboard cut-out man and woman pursue one another ad infinitum; one of the corners also serves as a gramophone turntable, on which romantic or rousing old tunes scratch out wearily into the air. There are recurring images of hearts and flowers and cigarettes, and of tobacco rolled on the thigh; at one heart-stopping moment, the name Jose appears infinitely reflected in the haze of cigar smoke over the stage.

At the end, it begins to look as if the men are beginning to absorb the idea of Carmen into themselves, in a gentle moment of gender-bending; don’t expect to understand what Akhe are saying here, but open up all your senses, and enjoy something inimitable, and impossible to forget.

Until 27 August. Today, 6pm.