An 8 hour production of The Great Gatsby that hasn’t cut a single word? For many this may sound like a less than appealing way to spend a Sunday. I beg you to reconsider.
There can be no denying that this production from New York’s Elevator Repair Service was a marathon, yet the show was infinitely more satisfying for its indulgence. The completely uncut rendition of Gatsby, staged over an 8 hour period (mercifully including 1hr 45 mins of breaks, spreading the action over 4 acts) sets the action, word by word, in a drab office where bored workers pick up the novel and take up the characters one by one. Thus, Fitzgerald’s extraordinary prose is brought into sparkling life for the stage.
Anyone who has ever met me would tell you that I’m a bit of a Gatsby geek. I have the first edition’s cover framed in a poster on my bedroom wall, and spent most of my university life writing dissertations on 1920s America. Having read the book at least 10 times, my hopes and expectations were high. I am delighted to say that this production didn’t disappoint.
The main joy is without doubt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose. It has a magical quality, and evokes atmosphere with an economy of words and an elegance that is simply exquisite. By using pared down sets and costumes, normal-looking actors and sparse props, this production has stripped the book down to its bare bones. By seeing it presented this way new aspects are highlighted – the humour has been commented on by many reviewers, but I was also hit by a greater atmopshere of drunkenness, and the music production was simple, yet knowing and highly effective. The first half was hilariously funny. The absurdities of the characters were mercilessly played upon, and the make-do style allowed for almost surreal elements as rain was represented by a hand held spray bottle, a sofa became in turns at a car, piano, lilo and deathbed. This led to a real ‘signature feel’, which astonished with its adequate simplcity and at other times lightened the mood via absurdity.
What also becomes apparent is what Fitzgerald didn’t include in his prose. Gatsby’s mansion is decribed in all its splendour, but by seeing the women in plain clothes I realised for the first time that the ‘roaring twenties’ style was not specifically described in the text at all. It has been an (understandable) assumption of illustrators and directors that the women would be flapperised and that Art Deco would be the design order of the day. Without these distractions on stage, we are allowed to see the more timeless nature of this narrative. The foreground that has always been dominated by bootleggers, champagne, extravagant cars and hydroplanes is allowed to fall back, with the real story – of dreams, reinvention and loyalty being given the space that it deserves.
What elements were described are given greater meaning by their physical rendition – Gatsby’s pink suit for the second half demostrates to us his new optimism, but also that this optimism is slightly out of step. He is glowing amongst the crowd, but from this one point we can see that his dreams are likely to provoke more derision than success.
The acts are also contrasting – the lighter, humorous tone of acts one and two blends into the third for a time as the pace of the narrative accelerates, giving way to the darkness of act four as the threads draw together and the fates of each character are decided. The amazing Scott Shepherd reads as Nick Carraway throughout, but closes the book and narrates by heart for this final section. The effect is immense – it must be nigh on impossible not to be completely sucked into this story or to marvel at its execution, right up to that wonderful closing passage, remiding us how we all, “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
I’ve only been out of the theatre for 19 hours, and am sure that there’s a lot yet to process about this production. In an unexpected twist, on opening up my Kindle back to where I left Gatsby at Chapter 3 yesterday morning, the book already seems enhanced. My favourite novel now evokes new music and laughter as I dive back into the world that has long been a reliable friend. I have never before seen a production or a film that has made such a vibrant pleasure even more alive. Gatz has managed it.
Gatz is playing, from 2.30pm-10.30pm on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at the Noel Coward Theatre until July 15th 2012. Tickets are available from the National Theatre website.