Some time around 1981 I decided that “The Great Gatsby” was my favourite novel of all time. I’d read it at school, studied it further for my American Literature paper at university, and basically allowed it to become a major part of me. Many waters have passed under the bridge since I last read it, so I was intrigued to hear of this eight hour experimental drama piece, where you basically witness someone reading the entire book out loud over the course of an afternoon and evening. How will that work, one wonders. How will I concentrate that long? Is it still my favourite book? Will there be enough time for dinner?
Of course it is a tall order to keep an entire theatre audience engaged for eight hours. However, time wise, it’s not that much different from going to see a matinee and then an evening performance on the same day – and it makes a very interesting comparison with, say, David Edgar’s dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby, where it takes about the same length of time to tell the full story in two self contained plays. Like Gatz, some of Nick Nick also involves the direct lifting of text from the novel to be recited on stage; but of course, 99% of Dickens’ book has been adapted and dramatised into a theatrical event. That is what makes Gatz different from any similar production – there is no adaptation. The entire text that you hear is exactly what was written by Scott Fitzgerald without any additions or subtractions.
It’s a risky strategy. I like theatrical risks though, and would much prefer to see something fail creatively than simply be a lazy success. If you can achieve it, even better is a creative success of course; but regrettably I’m not sure I can classify Gatz under that heading. There’s no doubt this is a Marmite production. The majority of the audience at the Noel Coward theatre last Saturday night gave it a standing ovation; at the same time at least six people from the row we were in and the one behind left, not to return, during the course of the performance. It’s never going to be one of those shows that pleases everyone.
This production is by New York’s Elevator Repair Service, and is being staged as part of the London International Festival of Theatre, within the framework of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The structure of the show is simple. We’re in a rather dilapidated looking office, circa 1993 from the look of the IT. Our hero Nick arrives for work, switches on his computer but it fails to start up. Whilst trying to reset it, he finds a copy of “The Great Gatsby” on the desk, opens it at page one and starts to read it aloud. Other members of staff arrive, and go about their business – in a rather non-productive dilatory sort of way – but slowly they too integrate themselves into the story of Gatsby. Nick, reading the book, assumes the role of Nick Carraway, the narrator; his boss becomes Jay Gatsby himself; others become Tom, Daisy, Myrtle, Jordan and so on. In that opening scene there’s a charmingly funny moment after they start joining in as Office Nick shows mild astonishment that they seem to know the text unfalteringly without actually having a copy of the book to hand. But he doesn’t question it, he goes with it, and the story proceeds with his colleagues chipping in as other characters in the story. Elements of the book get amusingly or ironically replicated on stage, but not in imitation; it’s as though they are two parallel universes. Clever and entertaining stuff, and subtly underplayed. As the story develops, one of the strengths of the production is that you lose sight of the office setting, and the characters simply start acting out the Gatsby story. In fact the office equipment undergoes a gentle bit-by-bit decommissioning, so that by the time we’re in the final “act” so to speak, there’s hardly any office equipment left, save for Nick’s keyboard which, bemused, he drops into a filing cabinet.
I thought that opening sequence – basically representing Chapter One – worked very well; slowly (perhaps too slowly) setting the scene for later on. On the other hand Mrs Chrisparkle found it extremely slow and fought, unsuccessfully, against sleep. With Chapter Two comes an increase in drama and tension, as Nick is introduced to Tom’s mistress Myrtle, in a scene of wild drunken abandon. Being both more visually and vocally stimulating, with many new characters appearing and talking, this provided a big step up in the interest stakes and Mrs C started to stay awake naturally, without my having to dig her in the ribs. But when we get to Chapter Three, which is basically the introduction of Gatsby, it goes more reflective and quiet again and the dramatic tension built up in the previous scene is frittered away. I feel this is the major problem of the show and its structure. It’s not an adaptation of a book but the book itself and in my opinion it doesn’t actually translate well to the stage. Fitzgerald wrote a finely crafted novel with highs and lows and changes of pace; but the stage is a different place from your imagination whilst reading, and the lows just didn’t work for me. Moments of high drama came to life really well throughout the whole performance; quiet moments of reflection and introversion came across to me as rather boring.
Given that the book is about Nick, and how he fits or doesn’t fit into the society in which he is a stranger, the book is full of self-enquiring, self-examining passages where he is learning about himself. Whereas they make a very satisfying read, I don’t think that simply reading out those passages works on stage. My memory from the book is that Nick actually turns into quite an unpleasant character; his dumping of Jordan is the cowardly action of a heel, if I remember. In Gatz this comes across as a minor event of little significance, whilst in the book it stands out; you judge him, harshly, and you wonder if he will ever love again (or indeed is capable of love). In Gatz I was not motivated to judge him.
There’s no doubt that it’s a complete tour de force by Scott Shepherd playing Nick; and when someone spends the best part of eight hours on stage speaking it seems churlish to criticise his performance. But I did sometimes find it difficult to distinguish Office Nick from Nick Carraway; to the extent that Character Nick occasionally got a bit lost. The two occasions when Nick appears to come out of character and directly addresses the audience with the information that “we’ll take a break for fifteen minutes” completely destroyed the illusion of just reading the book out loud in an office. Mrs C wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t said it. Would we have continued to sit in our seats for fifteen minutes while nothing happened, confused as to why the house lights were up? No. He doesn’t even say it to his fellow workers but to the audience. Considering the whole structure of the show is to be very careful that only words from the text are spoken audibly, I found it a very painful breach of fourth wall etiquette.
I really liked the performance of Susie Sokol as Jordan Baker, the golfer with whom Nick starts a relationship. She fell extremely well into character from the rather lazy magazine reading gopher that she is in the office. Her quirky cutesiness was very convincing, and you got the feeling that Office Nick quite fancied Office Jordan too, which was a nice touch. I also thought that Jim Fletcher’s Office Jim, who became Gatsby, was another very good performance. He absolutely looked the part, in his mismatching pink suit (an Oxford man would never mismatch) and his rather dour deliberate delivery gave a good impression of Gatsby’s unreality, setting him apart from the other characters. Gatsby is largely a figment of his own making, and you might expect him to be a glamorous character – think of Robert Redford in the 1970s film – but deep down inside he isn’t, and I think Jim Fletcher conveyed that very well.
Laurena Allan gave very entertaining performances both as Tom’s mistress Myrtle, all wannabe Isadora Duncan and spoilt plaything; and as Office Myrtle, simpering in a cack-handed sort of way and doing a masterstroke of comic business with the Oreos. When the brutal Tom, played by Gary Wilmes, punches her in the nose you feel the hurt almost as much as she does. I’m not sure he drew out Tom’s brutality quite as much as I would have expected – his big showdown with Gatsby was rather like two nice guys just getting a bit irked; it could have done with more grit, perhaps. Of the smaller supportive roles, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Kate Scelsa as Office Secretary Lucille, unmotivated and with highly judgmental eyes reacting with despair to whatever anyone more senior was doing in the office; and then throwing herself into the more drunken and degenerate roles of Gatsby partygoers and neighbours.
One very positive aspect to the production is that I am sure it will drive people to read or re-read the original book. We heard people in the audience vowing to revisit it, and Mrs C is now determined to catch up on some other Scott Fitzgerald that she hasn’t read yet. It was excellent to hear the story again and I was pleased that I could still actually remember a few passages. It really is a brilliant book and if you haven’t read it, you should; and you can easily read it in a day, as this show confirms.
But my overwhelming feeling about the production is that a novel is not a play. Whereas Nicholas Nickleby soared with comic and dramatic scenes tumbling into each other with perfect timing, Gatz feels very patchy and uneven; for me, nowhere was this more pointed than with the last hour of the show, after Gatsby has died (sorry if you didn’t realise that’s what happens to him). The book wraps up his life and his loose ends in a very poignant and tender way, but I felt that everything that happens on stage after he dies was really rather boring. It’s like the major plot occurrence has happened, and you’re spending the final hour twiddling your thumbs. I did like the way Scott Shepherd progressed from reading the book to reciting it without referring to the text; that was a nice touch, bringing Office Nick and Carraway closer together. But I just felt it lacked tension and drama. This time it was Mrs C’s turn to nudge me in the ribs to keep me awake during that final hour.
So a fine example of the “fail creatively” school of theatre, I’d say; it’s a very bold experiment, and technically it’s certainly fascinating to watch actors perform for such a long time. But I left feeling generally dissatisfied and, a couple of days on, the more I think about it, the more dissatisfied I become. I know I’m in the minority as it has generally received rave reviews; but I also think it is very easy to be swept away with enthusiasm simply because of the effort and commitment of the cast to work so hard for their curtain call. It’s on in London until 15th July – if you have the time, definitely go and see if you agree with me, or if I’m being an old curmudgeon.