Nuttin’ much: tattered shreds of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at Grimeborn

My suspicions should have been aroused by the fact that there was no programme for Porgy and Bess. The website had listed just two singers: Talia Cohen and Masimba Ushe. ‘Surely,’ I thought to myself, ‘there’ll be more? Won’t they credit them?’ Porgy and Bess, after all, is a large cast opera: a big story, with big themes, and a big heart. Then, walking into the larger of the Arcola’s two spaces, I found the stage entirely occupied by what looked like a full orchestra, for the first time ever: it was, indeed, the Basement Orchestra, present, correct and resplendent in denim and hipster hair, entirely filling the stage floor. The third warning was the vision of just two singers sitting on the tiny balcony above the stage – with microphones in front of them. My heart sank.

Grimeborn prides itself on producing “Bold new versions of classic operas”, and that is what I’m always looking for here. I’ve seen some stunning edits of key works over the years: a haunting Pelléas et Mélisande, a shattering Werther, a bewitching Daphne, a terrifying Il Tabarro (which I’m sad I never got round to writing up), and many more intense, insightful productions which successfully refresh operas we think we know. But while Debussy, Massenet, Strauss, Puccini and pals all got the rockstar reduction treatment (glorious young singers, cleverly minimalist staging, sensitively stripped-down instrumentation, sometimes even to shimmering piano accompaniment only), Gershwin seems to have been palmed off with a dog-ate-my-homework, ‘let’s just do the ones everyone knows because nobody really cares’ debacle. We launch straight into “Summertime”, sung with breathily pleasant jazz delivery, but without any dramatic presence, by Talia Cohen; there’s a nice sense of jazzy flourish from a slightly screamy brass section, but this orchestra is much too large for this space, and the noise (and heat) soon feels like being strapped to a storage heater.

The first song over, orchestra members rise in turn to read scraps of the synopsis, some with less charm and conviction than others; and, the story bounding ahead like a drug-addled rabbit, we are off into the next number, before we’ve barely had a chance to understand who is who (not helped by the fact that Cohen and Ushe sing random arias indiscriminately, not just those of Porgy and Bess). As Masimba Ushe sets off on “I got plenty of nuttin’”, his lovely rounded bass promises us the earth, but he’s soon beset by microphone delivery problems which affect the rest of his singing continuously, and his performance becomes a mixture of cheerily resonant success and near-silence, depending on the mic’s mood. Neither Cohen nor Ushe make any noticeable attempt to act, Cohen sipping water between numbers and smirking at the instrumentalists. Only their voices imply animation; characterisation, and narrative connection, are simply absent.

This half-hearted, patronising attempt at storytelling, quite apart from clearly putting some orchestra members well beyond their comfort zone, can’t possibly communicate a plot as rich, dark and psychologically complex as Porgy and Bess. The orchestra remains uncomfortably loud; it feels like a long, dull, awkward hour before we’re finally set free. Poor Gershwin: Grimeborn got this one totally the wrong way round. A sadly missed opportunity.

Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 6 August

Rating: one 

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