How La bohème reveals the consequences of poverty and homelessness

A new production of La Bohème has been radically updated to reflect modern crises. Co-director Becca Marriott explains why Puccini's classic opera can be so contemporary

When Jonathan Larson wrote and composed his iconic musical RENT; an exploration of drug addiction and HIV in 1990’s New York, based on Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, he was paying homage to the themes of class difference and social injustice at the heart of the original.

While Puccini composed a love story, suffocating social issues in lush melody and scenic beauty, Larson brought these to the fore in the harsh truthful colours of Rock. Our project is to keep the beauty of Puccini’s original score, full of sentimentality and romance, and to juxtapose this with the brutality of our divided society and the violent consequences of poverty and drug abuse. In this way, we seek to intensify the audience’s response to such neglect and inequality.

Matthew Kimble as Ralph and Becca Marriott as Mimi

The opera centres around two relationships. The central romance is between Rodolfo (Ralph — to rhyme with safe — in our adaption) and Mimi; and the satellite love story is that of Marcello (Mark) and his sometimes girlfriend, Musetta. We cut all of the other characters from the opera. This not only intensifies the focus on these pairs, but also heightens the sense that they are somehow trapped together.

Mimi descends into homelessness, prostitution and violence

Ralph and Mark are living an idealised Bohemian life. In the words of Jarvis Cocker, they ‘wanna live like common people’ but if they called their ‘dad he could stop it all’. They are failing to pay the rent while their parents subsidise their iPhones, iPads and beer money. Meanwhile, the women they pursue, Mimi and Musetta, do not have this backstop of upper-middle-class wealth.

Mark fails to understand Musetta’s willingness to take what she can get from rich older men, while Ralph romanticises Mimi’s poverty and her drug addiction, treating her as though she were a character in one of the plays he is constantly trying to write, rather than as the very real and struggling woman she is.

As Musetta flits from relationship to relationship to maintain quality of life and keep a roof over her head, Mimi descends into homelessness, prostitution and violence to feed the addiction which helps her block out the meaningless of a life of financial impossibility, with no aim or qualifications.

It is estimated that over 300,000 people are sleeping rough in UK, more than the population of the entire city of Newcastle. Of these roughly 41% have a drug addiction and roughly one in ten are women. Women on the street are exceptionally vulnerable and at risk of sexual assault and violence. Although they commonly seek to sleep in pairs, newcomers are often left alone and become easy prey.

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Mimi is destroyed by street life in this way. Confronted with the horrific side effects of her addiction, and the physically abused state in which they find her, her guilt-plagued friends make a lethal decision in an attempt to help.

We also wanted to contrast images of fashionable poverty or notions of champagne socialism and fashionable drug abuse — drink, cocaine etc. to the reality of living with nothing and of numbing the pain of existing without hope.

Thomas Isherwood as Mark and Honey Rouhani as Musetta

These disparities are especially exemplified in areas of London that have undergone rapid regeneration. Our adaptation is set in Dalston. In this world Ralph and Mark rent their refurbished immaculate ex-council flat privately for an exorbitant sum, while Mimi is housed by the council upstairs.

Mark and Musetta resort to living with Mark’s mother, while Mimi is left homeless when her and Ralph break up because he is too afraid, selfish and immature to deal with her addiction. The precarious state of those with no fallback, who slip through society’s cracks, is key to understanding the outcomes of the opera.

The precarious state of those who slip through society’s cracks is key to understanding the outcomes of the opera

We want to present two worlds and to show how easy it is to forget the crises that those with nothing face. We are all too ready to bury the truth when surrounded by neat gadgets, and the Christmas lights of capitalist, consumerist life: just as it is too easy to watch a traditional production of La bohème and feel great sympathy and passion, but no anger nor guilt.

Our project is to make the audience think differently and, like Ralph, Mark and Musetta, to understand that their silent complicity in society’s inequalities can be fatally dangerous.

Adam Spreadbury Maher and Becca Marriott’s adaption of La Bohème transfers to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios from December 6. Tickets available here

Image credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke