In addiction recovery meetings, a phrase often heard is: “The definition of insanity is repeating the same mistake and expecting a different result.” It is rare to see this truism given such magnificent, dark treatment as in Porgy and Bess. This operatic piece of musical theatre is as well-suited as anything I’ve seen to the outdoor space of the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park, as under Timothy Sheader’s direction the tempestuous action glowers beneath clouds rolling over the setting sun.
The red chair, the redly-glowing rocks and Bess’s red dress on Catfish Row hint from the start at the bloody times ahead but meanwhile from Jade Ewen as Clara it is Summertime, and the singing is stunning. Jade, who trained at Sylvia Young, has been in the Sugababes since 2009 and also did Eurovision in 2009, singing an Andrew Lloyd Webber number that got her to fifth place, impressive for the UK. Nicola Hughes, the “hussy drinking like any man” who tries, heartbreakingly, to go straight, brings depth, glamour, tragedy and her magnificent voice to Bess, for which she had an Olivier nomination in Trevor Nunn’s production.
Rufus Bonds and Phillip Boykin are over from the US to star as Porgy and Crown, both watchable, dynamic actors and singers who carry us along from scene to scene on this roller coaster of a musical, surprising us with their vulnerability and, in Boykin’s case, terrible yet compelling cruelty. It was amusing to see how Boykin responded at the end to the loud “boos” traditionally awarded to the best onstage baddies by British theatre audiences.
With 15 musicians and 20 singers the company is the biggest ever at Regent’s Park and the orchestra conducted by Simon Lee is justly invited onto the stage at the end to join the final bow. We saw an early preview but it was already a sell-out. Surely not many productions can serve up such a heady mix as George Gershwin’s score of gospel, classical, jazz and musical theatre all in one go, the open air acoustic somehow exceeding the impact of any recording. The extraordinary music sends a strong message about the attempts in those desperate days by those born into the most deprived communities in the 1920s to give voice to their sorrows. “I’ve got plenty of nothing, and nothing’s plenty for me,” sings out Porgy, a badly disabled beggar, before his heart is tumbled by Crown’s drug addicted Bess.
A religious faith that is often appealed to, for healing and hope, is part of the landscape, like the shifting patterns on the metalled rocks at the rear of the stage. It is peculiarly biblical yet ultimately carries a humanist message that, in spite of everything, is one of hope. No futility of desire is ever admitted. Instead, the characters keep trying, again and again, to find happiness, no matter what the result of their strivings. At once humbling and uplifting, this production pits the eternal insanity of the addict against the everlasting hope of love. We never find out which, in the end, wins. We must suspect the former, but still we are allowed to leave in hope.
The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
Regent’s Park Open Air
Booking From: 17th July 2014
Booking Until: 23rd August 2014
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.45pm
Matinees: Thursday and Saturday 2.15pm