The Black Eyed Roses / Carmen, Playhouse, Newcastle

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The Independent Culture

The two-week Newcastle Gateshead Gypsy Festival celebrated the Romany lifestyle and culture through music and theatre. The two main productions were Northern Stage's The Black Eyed Roses and a rousing Carmen from the German-based European Rom Theatre Pralipe.

The two pieces challenge preconceptions in complementary ways. The Black Eyed Roses, devised by the ensemble over the past year, takes on those who would say that only Roma can tell us something valid about what it is to be a Gypsy; while Pralipe's adaptation of Mérimée's 1845 novella inverts the normal order of things, with a Roma company re-presenting the Gadje's (non-Gypsy Europeans') archetypal image of Gypsy womanhood to a non-Roma world.

For a week the two shows ran alongside one another, and then came the chance to see both on the same day. It made for a bold counterpoint. The Black Eyed Roses opens with a young girl picking her way across chalky stones that edge the black-stained Playhouse stage. She is on her way to be married, accompanied by her father. En route, her virginity will be questioned, not just because tradition demands it but also because of the bridegroom's jealous friend. His antipathy leads later to conflict and death.

With no direct dialogue, the production is kept moving by a succession of tales, music (played impressively by the cast), song and dance; the effect, despite stories of loss, anxiety, hope, despite celebration and grief, is determinedly pulsating, of a journey that will not end.

Although the girl and her future husband provide a focus, there is a sense of their being suspended, almost constantly, in the presence of the full cast. That the journey and the group should dominate is appropriate, but I would have liked more modulated tones, a stronger sense of meditation on these elements. Interestingly, this is achieved when the tiny Hungarian Roma Mitsou appears on stage, as she does four times. Her haunting singing had in some ways sown the seed for this production, and her appearance provides a kind of blessing to the enterprise.

Pralipe's gem of a production, in a tent next to the Playhouse, has an intimacy missing in Roses, despite its being performed in Romany. It is played as a love story between a man and woman who happen to straddle the Roma/non-Roma divide, and Silvia Pinku's Carmen goes beyond the calculating bewitcher of men to someone who can give herself and lament the jealousy she stirs. By the end, Jose has killed three people trying to quiet his agonised heart.