GERSHWIN’S GRANDEUR: SPLENDOUR ON THE GRASS
From the moment Nicola Hughes wanders onto the stage in the overture, pulls on a strident red dress, sniffs her “happy dust” and flings herself into a Maenad dance of frenzy, we know this is one of the great operatic heroines: the ultimate hot-patootie, bad boy’s moll, the scandal of Catfish Row. Her story is as operatically gripping as any Violetta or Mimi. From the dirt-poor simplicity of 1930’s black America and a novel by D & D Heyward, George and Ira Gershwin conjured up immense harmonic distresses, a tale of tyranny and addiction, sexual obsession, heroism and murder. That songs like “Summertime” and “It ain’t necessarily so” get hoicked out and covered for mere entertainment is almost a pity; with this magnificent production, under the sighing trees and sunset glow of a London park, Timothy Sheader (and musical director David Shrubsole) rightly restore it to its towering emotional grandeur.
Almost entirely sung-through – indeed to the point that the brief spoken dialogue sometimes stands out with an added intensity – this version is trimmed and blended until it moves with ferocious momentum, never allowing the musical-theatre indulgence of big showstopping numbers. Indeed when numbers are big enough to win their own applause it feels almost an interruption. What matters is the trajectory of Bess: the flight from justice of her murderous lover, her rescue by the crippled beggar Porgy, her reform, sexual obsession and faltering addiction.
Sheader eschews any attempt at a literally picturesque shoreside village and sets it on a bare stage, chairs and tables and fishing-nets becoming boats,doors, beds. This gives Liam Steel’s choreography a wide expressive freedom, the ensemble sometimes forming square choirs, sometimes violently or joyfully mobile, sometimes symbolically still , always serving the narrative momentum. But the huge abstract backdrop by Katrina Lindsay is remarkable: a sort of vast, crumpled shining copper sheet in which you can almost see faces, sensual folds, stitches. Onto this Rick Fisher’s brilliant lighting plot projects the mood: warmly bright before a real sunset at the happy island picnic, hellishly flaming as the brutal Crown returns to claim Bess, pure and silver as faithful Porgy waits and the gospel choir sing to “Doctor Jesus”. It is truly terrifying in the storm. But again, all of this only serves, with pinpoint atmospheric accuracy, the unrolling universal tragedy.
Hughes’s Bess is ravishingly sexy, dangerous, troubled, sweet; lured back to the happy-dust by Cedric Neal’s sinister, light-toned pusher Sporting Life (in a bright yellow suit and pink trilby) she evokes both the conflict and horrible relief of succumbing. Rufus Bond’s twisted crippled Porgy raises a shiver with deep-felt basso cries of loneliness, but gains irresistible ungainly charm in his happy selfless love (“I’ve got plenty o’nuttin!”). Mariah is, as you would expect from Sharon D.Clarke, a ferocious matriarch to remember (and model yourself on, at my age). And Philip Boykin as Crown is so satisfyingl, villainously macho that he got a volley of pleased boos at the curtain call, and roars of approval for dropping an ironic curtsey in return.
But individual praise seems jarring, however deserved. Because this marvellous production is what it should be: a true ensemble, everyone from the dance-captain to the lighting crew serving the Gershwin genius and the pity and terror of the human condition. Unforgettable.