Arcola Theatre, London – until 29 July 2017
Then transfers to Edinburgh Fringe
Guest reviewer: Maeve Campbell
In 2011 Osama Bin Laden was killed, Pope John Paul II was beautified, and Kate and Wills tied the knot. Nearly as many people watched another televised wedding that year as a new reality-TV religion swept the globe. This is where The Marriage of Kim K, a new opera penned by Leoe Mercer and Steven Hyde, begins.
The show revolves around three couples; central are husband and wife Steven and Amelia, whose clashes over television choices mask deeper communication problems in their relationship. Amelia is a Kardashian fanatic and composer Steven loves Mozart, dismissing his lawyer wife’s obsession.
As they argue over the TV rota, both Kim Kardashian and Kris Humpries, whose ‘real life’ marriage lasted 72 days, and The Marriage of Figaro’s Count and Countess play out their own dramas side by side. This is shown with a split stage set up, with Amelia and Steven planted centre. This economical use of space is imagined wonderfully garishly by designer Alexander Newton. The staging doesn’t change over the course of the opera, so the device feels slightly tired by the last act.
The gendered subtext at the centre of the show is problematic. Amelia works hard in her job, but Steven, a potential creative genius, suggests his wife is stifling and distracting him with her love of vapid entertainment. He is not necessarily the victim though, it is suggested that his character flaws are essentially masculine and hers feminine.
The Kim and Kris sections are the weakest in the show. A five-minute aria about foundation make-up does not sustain. It is an example of the two-dimensional character development of the show’s subject, demonstrating a deeply cynical undertone. Yasemin Mirelle and James Edge struggle with the musical language that’s a hybrid of Mozart and contemporary popular music. Edge’s Humpries gives great comic machismo with his physicality and he has some funny lines, but it’s often a struggle to hear them through weak annunciation. As the audience respond well to the action Kim and Kris hit something of a stride, and by the end of the show there is more confidence in their vocal delivery.
Yet, The Marriage of Figaro scenes alongside these two were sublimely superior, making
one wonder why we aren’t just watching that show instead. Emily Burnett, who sings the
Countess beautifully, has a magnetic vibrancy onstage and her scenes emphasise the failings in the reworked music. Perhaps it could have been a deliberate commentary on the weakness of low brow popular culture?
There are several meta-theatrical moments in the show that scream ‘just look how clever we are!’ Composer Steven Hyde plays the character of Steven who happens to be a composer and is with a woman called Amelia, played by Amelia Gabriel, who the programme informs us is Steven’s real girlfriend. This same programme predicts the show’s future catastrophic rise to success. It’s hard to take a critique of celebrity narcissism seriously when presented with credentials like this.
The show is like a sugary cocktail; it seems like a fun idea but leaves one with a bitter aftertaste and potential for a hangover. Cultural snobbery undercuts this piece, and it’s hard to know what point The Marriage of Kim K is making, other than critiquing contemporary popular cultural consumption in favour of a more classical style of art. Like Kim herself, or the Kim that Mercer and Hyde present, the shows vapidity is it’s resounding impression.