Written by two white Jewish brothers and their white upper class friend about a black Charleston neighbourhood, there’s something uncomfortable about the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. With its music a slippery fusion of jazz, blues, gospel, folk and classical styles, it sits somewhere on the border between opera and musical theatre and is not the easiest show to perform, but Timothy Sheader’s production shows that, with innovation and imagination, the story of crippled Porgy and wayward Bess can still be a powerful one.
Catfish Row is a community of religious matriarchs (who pray to Dr Jesus when someone gets ill) and gambling, working men. The villains are obvious – even getting boos as they take bows – and the good characters lose their halos as the story progresses.
Someone who sits between the two extremes is the impressionable Bess. Nicola Hughes divides her neatly between the ‘Happy Dust’ snorting prostitute of the beginning and the caring mother that she becomes later. “Between the god fearing ladies and the goddamning men,” Porgy says of Bess, “that girl ain’t got a chance. ” She begins by dancing with Liza Minnellian staggering in a lurid red dress, but her clothes and her gestures become more conservative as the story moves on.
Porgy, Rufus Bonds Jr, hobbles on a stick like Oogway from Kung Fu Panda, bent double with a small and wrinkly head that pokes out of his green and brown clothes. His compassion and his love for Bess are clear, and his croaky voice is precise and full of character.
The most striking voice in the ensemble is Golda Rosheuvel’s, as Serena. Lamenting her dead husband in the bluesy dirge ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ she seems completely grief-stricken, but remarkably in control.
Gershwin’s music does not give the singers an easy ride. It’s in many ways astonishingly modern, restlessly moving between blues, gospel and classical, coloured with moments of dissonance that sound very contemporary. Gershwin challenges the performers with layered and unexpected harmonies, avant-garde wailing and shrieking glissandi.
Sheader’s imagination is evident, stylising everything into abstract or semi-real forms: sometimes the cast members are scattered in chaotic patterns across the stage, sometimes they are tightly grouped into units, working as one. In the opening scene the women of Catfish Row are gutting grey flannels as if they were fish. Knives hitting the tables are used as percussion instruments.
Katrina Lindsay’s design has some of the abstract qualities of the direction. The men dress in grubby cords and slacks, the women in dreary smocks and leather pinnies. Crumpled bronze sheets form the blank backdrop, sinuous and glistening waveforms that look like the contours of an ear canal.
Under David Shrubsole’s musical direction the cast performs this difficult opera with accuracy, unity and spirit. There are moments of intensity – on stage murders, the tension of Bess choosing between her old life and the new – and moments of communal joy as the community of Catfish Row sing together and support each other.
The open air setting adds something elemental and romantic to the evening. Dragonflies skim across the stage as the sun sets, the speakers and lights all have little jackets and hats to protect them from the rain, and the occasional rustle from the surrounding trees or a loud helicopter hum are reminders that we are outside. It’s a truly beautiful setting in which to watch a complex piece of musical theatre performed by a hugely talented cast.