Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre creates the illusion of separation from the outside world. As soon you step through the gates you’re transported and engulfed into the magical world of the theatre. A sparse yet unique pre-set of a broken rusty chair, another chair with a piece of red cloth draped off of the back of it and upstage the fascinating structure, setting the back drop for the evening’s performance.
Porgy and Bess tells the story of the eponymous Porgy, a disabled African-American beggar living in squalor in South Carolina. The show’s overarching plot is of his love and rescue of Bess, who is suffering an unhealthy relationship with her abusive lover, Crown, and is addicted to drugs through the dealer Sporting Life. Additionally, this portrays the behaviour of the white people towards the black during the segregation and how hard life was for African-American’s.
The performance opens with Bess played by Nicola Hughes (reprising her role from the Savoy Theatre production) entering the stage accompanied by a wall of sound from the orchestra, commanding the attention of the audience before having done anything. She proceeds to seductively walk over to the chair centre stage, puts on the red dress and aggressively dances around in a staccato manner, alluding to her later revealed addiction to ‘happy dust’.
Originally conceived as an ‘American folk opera’ the score of Porgy And Bess is very classically constructed. The overture descends with an awfully dissonant clash of keys setting a rather uncomfortable depth for when we first meet Bess. Although the orchestration of the score contains a lot of classical instruments (without which a scaled down sacrilege of a 20th century great would occur), we can see Gershwin’s jazz influences through scatty and chromatic music. Gershwin sophisticatedly utilises the classic compositional device of a leitmotif – a short, recurring musical phrase associated with a character more regularly found in movie scores. For example, before Sporting Life takes the stage the motif of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ is played. The use of the ‘wah wah’ effect on the muted trumpets alerts the audience of his ill character.
The directional focus of the show was well executed regardless of the vast space the performers covered. The minimal props and set leant itself to the piece creating a blank canvas for the show which made the task of scene changes considerably easier than if the stage were cluttered with unnecessary props. The themes throughout the show were well portrayed and the use of the props to recreate different images was very creative.
The theatre itself is a gorgeous space and has masses of potential for other shows because of how magical it feels – particularly when the weather is at its best! Standout performances came from Cedric Neal for his alluringly magnetic rendition of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and Nicola Hughes, due to her intensely emotional interpretation of ‘What You Want With Bess’.
Reviewed by Tom Yates
Porgy and Bess plays at Regents Park Open Air Theatre until 23 August 2014. Click here for more information and to book tickets.