With a cast of 40, a 20-piece orchestra and £3 million spent on the production, Sir Trevor Nunn's adaptation of the Gershwins' folk musical Porgy And Bess is one of the biggest shows opening in the West End this autumn. Playing the eponymous lovers are American-in-England Clarke Peters and 2001 Laurence Olivier Award nominee Nicola Hughes. Matthew Amer caught up with them at the Savoy…
The cast of Porgy And Bess is nothing if not lively. At the stage door, as they arrive and mill about, the air vibrates with the sound of laughter and chatter. Inside Clarke Peters is nearly molested on his way to Nicola Hughes's dressing room. I assume he knows his attacker; he seems to revel in the experience.
In the relative safety of the dressing room, Peters confirms my suspicions: "You actually have 40 people in this company who are in love with each other," he says in his deep, rich, rumbling tones. There's certainly a feeling of warmth about the Savoy theatre, which is fantastic, as outside it's freezing.
Peters and Hughes play title characters Porgy And Bess in Trevor Nunn's new musical adaptation of the Gershwins' opera. The production is set in Catfish Row, South Carolina, where Porgy takes in the abandoned Bess following a murder. Their love affair is fraught with difficulties – returning faces from the past, the temptation of drugs – that test them to the limit. "It's not a musical with lovely songs and then you go off and you feel great," says Hughes, sipping a warming mug of tea with honey. "This musical gets to you, it touches you. I think that's why this show is a little more special than the usual."
In transferring the piece from an opera to a musical, Trevor Nunn, who also directs, has pruned away around an hour and a half of the show. The danger with such a cut-back is that part of the story is irretrievably lost, and the production could be weaker for it, but Peters sees the process in rather meatier terms: "What he's done,” he says, "is taken a nice big fat steak and cut away all the fat. You've left that bone in the centre and you've left all the lean meat around it."
"We have to take care of one another"
The "lean meat" that is left is the love story between the central characters. The favourite songs – I Got Plenty O' Nuttin', Summertime – are all included, but the process has also highlighted less well-known numbers that Hughes is adamant new audiences will fall in love with. The orchestration, which has been reworked by Gareth Valentine and is performed live by a 20-piece orchestra, also adds to the piece, as one would imagine, but took Peters a little by surprise when it came to performing with the band for the first time. "All of a sudden you think 'Why am I feeling this other dimension?' and when you look to see what you're hearing, there's strings that are swelling that we've just never heard before. If it's moving us, you know what it's doing to the audience. I think that we've been so focused on our job that we haven't really had time to be objective, to really listen to all the beauty that's coming at you."
On the subject of Sir Trevor Nunn, Peters and Hughes wax lyrical. From Peters's original thoughts – "He talks too much! He talks: talk, talk, talk, talk, talk!" – which are accompanied by wonderfully resonating laughter, grows a discussion on the merits of the director which again reflects the warmth of feeling within the company. "Let me tell you," begins Hughes, "it doesn’t get much better than Trevor Nunn. What a nice man. He's the same to everybody; he's very respectful, he's lots of fun. But ultimately he comes to the table; he has a vision and he isn't going to be swayed from that vision, so everybody knows they're on the same page with him. There's never any question about doubt; the man knows what he wants from you. At the same time he has a way of getting the performance out of the performer without them necessarily knowing how they got there."
Hughes and Peters agree that it is a treat to work with Nunn. Though Peters teases the director's verbal ability, he concedes that "he is a wordsmith and a master of that", and that his chat enables everyone in the huge company to know exactly what they should be doing. They also agree that though he has his eye on a goal, Nunn is willing to listen to ideas, to try something new, and to admit that he is wrong if proved to be. "He just wants the best for the show," Hughes concludes, "regardless of whether it's his decision or yours."
The discussion about Nunn is the first time that the real interplay between Hughes and Peters is clearly visible. This is the third time they have worked together in the West End and they obviously have a special relationship. While Hughes talks, Peters can be often be heard offering an "Mmmm" of agreement, they finish each others sentences, casually overlap each other, and happily let the conversation flow with no need to force it.
Peters, casual yet distinguished in a polo neck and jeans, is the calmer of the two, bordering on philosophising with his answers which, spoken in almost liquid tones, are entrancing. Hughes is the livelier member of the couple, louder in her laughter, and chats away with near perfect RP but just a hint of her Leicestershire heritage.
When the subject of their relationship comes up, Peters, in full Barry White mode, opens with the smooth line "Gets better all the time", while Hughes responds with a partially embarrassed, partially pleasurable squeal. Yet away from the playfulness – and there is a lot of playfulness – the fact that they have known each other a long time and worked together before is really helping them in this production. Hughes admits she was relieved when she got the phone call from Peters to say that he had taken the part, as she needed "somebody to play opposite that I would feel safe playing opposite; that it wasn't just about their performance, or mine, that it was a joint effort."
"I like Porgy so much that I think I’d like to go out with this"
"I'm beginning to see that it's not only on stage, it's also what happens afterwards because," Peters begins, before Hughes finishes, "we have to take care of one another."
The show is a mountain range of emotions, with some devastatingly deep valleys for the couple to descend into. Hitting those lows eight times a week has made, and continues to make, the leads aware of just how much support they need from each other. As they talk about the performance, there's a lot of knee touching and furtive glances. The laughter drops away for a moment, giving a glimpse of the depth of the actors' relationship.
When they've come through the emotional quagmire of the show and drained their bodies to the core, they tend to revert to a semblance of an old married couple. "Yesterday was my day for bitching and she was like 'will you shut the f**k up!'" say Peters, as Hughes adds that she said it "with lots of love". "We’ll be at each other's throats at some point before this is over and we’ll be back in each other's arms; I guarantee you that," Peters concludes.
The leading pair's first engagement together came in 1998, when they were both in the first cast change of Chicago. For Hughes, who was 23, it was her first leading role in the West End and with it came the pressure of being a young, black woman in the leading role of one of Theatreland's biggest hits. "As far as I saw it at the time," she says, "I was in the position to pave the way for others coming through, including myself, to be given a chance as a black woman to be in the top West End show of its day: if I f***ed up, then I'm f***ing it up for everybody else."
She didn't and so can claim some credit, along with Peters whose career in general has been ground breaking, that Porgy And Bess is being staged at all. Nunn was quoted back in August saying that the production could not have been staged 10 years ago due to a lack of diversity within theatre. It's an opinion that Peters agrees with: "You go back 15 years and you wouldn't have been able to get this amount of Afro-Caribbean talent in one place. It's not that it wasn't there – I think it's been there longer than we know – but we've always had to cast the net further afield in order to catch the talent."
Nunn also said recently that he hoped Porgy And Bess would draw the same multi-racial audience as Simply Heavenly, which also starred Hughes and Peters. Hughes agrees and is quick to make the point that the show is for everybody. "It's not racially exclusive," she says, "but at the same time it's important that black people know that there's something for them if they choose to see it."
If you do choose to see it, it could be the last chance you have to see Peters treading the boards. Having worked in theatre since 1978, he's hinting that it may be time to slow down a bit, not because he doesn't enjoy it any more but because there's nothing that could beat playing Porgy. "I like Porgy so much that I think I'd like to go out with this," he says, slipping into his natural laid back, contemplative state. "I don't think there'll be much I want to do after doing this, I really don't. I'm a little bit tired of the mediocrity of some of the pieces. I'm excited about coming here each day, I really am. I could bitch about it, but I know that this is the best gig I have ever had in my life, and I've had some really good roles. This has got meat, it's got music, it's got my girl, what else do I want?"
As for Hughes, "She's going to have babies” interjects Peters cheekily before she has had a chance to draw breath. It turns out that Hughes share his feelings, not about babies, but about future roles. "I don't feel I've got anything left to prove. I think people in this industry are always striving for that role, always striving for the pinnacle of their career, and most people never get there, not because they're not good enough, but because the chances never come around; wrong place, wrong time, they don't hold out for the role they really wanted, whatever. I just feel that I've had more than my fair share of good luck, and I am so honoured to be here."