In many ways, Timothy Sheader’s production of Porgy and Bess for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is highly dynamic. From the moment that Bess graces the stage during the Overture, slips into a slinky red number, takes a snort of ‘happy dust’, and dances like a woman possessed, the pace seldom slackens.
The stage is dominated by two vast, craggy cliffs that recall the work of the fishermen of Catfish Row. Their bronze colour alludes to the richness of minerals in South Carolina, and Rick Fisher’s lighting effects ensure that these masses can appear golden or dark in line with the action. There is no further scenery, with the careful positioning of chairs and tables creating the infrastructure for the drama. This gives the performance a sense of immediacy so that when Bess knocks on everyone’s door following Crown’s murder of Robbins, she simply walks from one seated person to another. Similarly, the storm is depicted by having people rock on, and fall from, their chairs.
Liam Steel’s choreography is strong at delineating character and, in particular, gender relations. As the men prepare for their craps game they roll dice while the women gut and chop fish (made of cloth). Similarly, before the picnic the males prepare the boat (a pile of chairs and tables bound together) while the ladies toss provisions into a pot.
The production is also strong on tempering stylised mass movement with exploration of individual character. For example, as Crown murders Robbins, the majority of the cast advance en bloc with blank faces, but Bess stands alone with an intrigued, almost gleeful, expression. Similarly, when Bess files for a divorce from Crown, Serena stands apart from the chorus because she would never show the same enthusiastic support as the others after Bess was indirectly responsible for her husband’s death.
In spite of this, it never feels as if the production ever really gets under the skin of the piece. It employs the 2011 Paulus adaptation, which is strictly entitled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (as is Trevor Nunn’s 2006 take). With the book and music adaptations by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray respectively, this version cuts the running time, replaces much music with dialogue, simplifies several (inconsequential) plot points, and makes the entire creation feel more like a standard piece of musical theatre. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and it is only right that the Open Air Theatre should favour a form that complements a balmy summer’s evening in the park. The essential abandonment of Gershwin’s gritty haul, however, does not aid the penetration of character, even if this is not the only reason why the evening can feel superficial. Others include the cutting short of key moments (such as the dance at the Kittiwah Island picnic that momentarily looks as if it will build to an epic climax), and the manner in which the music is delivered.
The fifteen-strong orchestra, under the baton of Simon Lee, certainly brings a sense of excitement to its explorations of everything from gospel to hot jazz. It is, however, entirely hidden from view, and the fact that its output is piped through large speakers affects the sense of intimacy and, to an extent, quality of sound. In such a large outdoor area there is nothing else that could have been done, but this could be a negative for those opera-goers who shy away from any form of amplification.
Porgy and Bess are strongly played by Rufus Bonds Jr and Nicola Hughes (who also took the role in Nunn’s production at the Savoy), although their performances are not flawless. Hughes imbues Bess with an excellent combination of feistiness, allure and vulnerability and there are some very interesting facets to her voice. In spite of this, we don’t really feel the transformation she has undergone by being with Porgy. True, she is supposed to undergo several relapses, but it feels hard to tap into her repeated claims of being changed and respectable.
Bonds Jr presents a highly likeable Porgy, and his pleasing voice makes him seem genuinely full of the joys of spring in ‘I Got Plenty Of Nothing’. He does not, however, project Porgy strongly enough to make the character feel like an oasis of decency in the most turbulent of worlds. That both his and Hughes’ voices are so strong does not aid the chemistry between them in ‘Bess You Is My Woman’ as both seem too intent on asserting their own sounds. Things are not helped by seeing them stand so far apart for much of the song, and the inability to feel for them here also makes the overall experience seem shallow.
There are some excellent performances from the supporting cast. The passionate sounds of Sharon D. Clarke as Mariah and Golda Rosheuvel as Serena are engaging, with Clarke’s thicker strains providing an effective contrast to Rosheuvel’s lighter voice. Jade Ewen as Clara gives an exemplary performance of ‘Summertime’, relishing the soaring phrases with a pure yet rounded sound, while Cedric Neal puts in a strong performance as Sporting Life. He is a slick mover and strong presence on stage, and ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ is one number that certainly does build up an intoxicating head of steam.