Puccini’s La bohème (The Bohemians) has been reinterpreted many times over since its premiere at the Teatro Regio in Turin in 1896. This latest version from King’s Head Theatre (KTH) and directed by Mark Ravenhill – his first as KTH’s artistic director – is a thoroughly modern affair of dating apps and FOMO.
It moves the action to present day London. Rob (Rodolfo) is trying to finish his novel, while flatmate Marcus (Marcello) contemplates his artwork (a tinsel-covered Santa Claus) and decides to go for a pint at the Nag’s Head before heading to his mother’s for Christmas. It’s a humorous introduction to the two friends and the opera as whole and nicely sets the stage for what’s to come.
Mimi – real name Lucas – is a Grindr hook-up for Rob. At first he’s shy, but soon opens up. The set-up of two strangers meeting this way is an excellent modern-day setting for the initial awkwardness between Rodolfo and Mimi in Puccini’s original.
The acting as the two men’s feelings quickly develop and they reveal more of themselves than they might feel comfortable with is particularly affecting. What follows are two of the most beautiful arias in opera – Rob/Rodolfo’s ‘Che gelida manina’ (‘How cold your little hand is!’) and Mimì’s ‘Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì’ (Yes. They call me Mimì’) – and both performers are excellent.
Philip Lee as Mimi has a wonderful voice, but it’s Daniel Koek as Rob who really impresses me. I’ve not seen him perform before and his voice is clear and expressive. Was it strange having two tenors interacting in this way? Actually, no. It worked really well, the two male voices blending nicely.
Baritone Matthew Hallet gives a very funny performance as Marcus. Ravenhill has informed the audience that Hallett is struggling with a cold and apologises if his performance isn’t up to scratch. I’ve seen him perform several times now and I couldn’t detect any trace of a cold. His voice and acting were spot on.
Our two lovers head to the Nag’s to meet up with Marcus and it’s here that the final member of the cast is introduced. Grace Nyandoro as Marissa, Marcus’s ex-girlfriend, offers a powerful soprano, with an acting performance that is confident, sparky and commands the stage. Again, there is lots of humour in the scene.
Of course, we know this can’t last, and after a very short break we’re back for Act II. Rob and Mimi’s relationship is breaking down; the latter can’t stand what he sees as Rob’s controlling ways, while the former is worried about his lover’s behaviour. He has reason to be – we learn in the first act that Mimi is HIV positive.
What I’ve often thought of as Rodolfo’s somewhat toxic jealousy is transformed here into genuine concern from Rob. Mimi, though, comes across as a commitment-phobe and rather bitter. It’s an interesting switch and works well.
Things aren’t working out for Marcus and Marissa either, despite the former’s insistence that their relationship is fine. This culminates in a stunning quartet in which Marcus and Marissa break up and Rob and Mimi decide to stay together till the morning.
The final scene is heartbreaking. In this version Mimi has overdosed – the impression is that this isn’t the first time, with cut scenes showing the other three actors in NHS scrubs attending to Mimi in A&E. Marcus and Marissa attempt to get him to a doctor, but it’s too late. As they leave to bring the car round, we get a reprisal of Mimi and Rob’s first scene together, but whereas that showed us love blossoming, this one brings death – of love and Mimi.
It’s testament to Lee’s abilities that you feel genuine sympathy for Mimi, despite his earlier animosity towards Rob. In a very poignant moment, for the first and only time Rob uses Lucas’s real name.
By necessity this is a very stripped-back production to fit the space, with just four performers, a piano and a set that’s little more than a table, a watercooler and a chair. The new English libretto originally conceived by David Eaton and Adam Spreadbury-Maher and reworked by Philip Lee and David Eaton is witty, sweary and also moving and bittersweet.
I loved it.
La bohème is on at King’s Head Theatre in Islington, London, until 28 May. Tickets are on sale now and cost £10-34.
Rob (Daniel Koek) and Mimi (Philip Lee) share a passionate kiss in Mark Ravenhill’s new production of Puccini’s La bohème for King’s Head Theatre (Joseph Martin-Kelly).