by Elevator Repair Service
a dramatic reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
at the Noel Coward Theatre, Friday 6th July 2012
First, let me put my cards on the table and acknowledge that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby probably lies within my top three favourite books; after reading it countless times for pleasure and study it has taken a particular hold in my psyche and quotes find themselves surfacing in moments of need. For some, this level of fandom could make Elevator Repair Service’s production of Gatz problematic, as director John Collins and team hardly treat the novel as sacred. Fortunately for me, however, they hit the nail on the head with their eight-hour reading of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece by understanding that the book is, first and foremost, a satire and necessarily has moments of ridiculousness. More than that, however, a unique and masterful theatrical experience is created which follows the contours and cadences we encounter when becoming absorbed by reading.
Much has been written about the office set-up of the piece, so it seems silly to waste words writing about it here other than to say that the drab eighties setting provides a stark contrast to the luxuriousness of both the writing and the content of the novel and raises points about extravagance of latter decades. Louisa Thompson’s stark set design highlights just how political The Great Gatsby is whilst doing very little, endowing the company with a fairly blank canvas from which to work, which is slowly coloured by the characters and their narratives. The multitude of objects strewn around the dark room and the on-stage sound desk, operated by designer Ben Williams, enhance the DIY-nature of the production, and emphasise how the visions and noises which appear in our head when reading frequently originate from real-life experience.
The slow evolving of characters from office-lackeys to Fitzgerald’s creations takes a while and mirrors the process of reading; the voices in our head and images of characters tend to begin grounded in reality before taking on a life of their own and becoming fully fledged individuals. Scott Shepherd’s Nick starts the day in trepidation, unsure of what to make of the novel and merely going through the motions to reach the next page. As the hours elapse, however, he and the audience become utterly absorbed by the narrative until the turning of the pages and the passing of time is barely noticeable. One of the most beautiful moments in Gatz comes when Nick drops the book in the final segment, finishing the story himself without the help of the author; these final scenes are played without the aid of words on the page and come straight from the heart.
In this staging, the (stunningly poetic) final line haunts throughout; “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. Many layers are at work here: we experience, in 2012, a theatre show set in a 1980s office which sees the story of 1920s America played out, which in turn has many references to the past. But despite all this, the themes and characters presented remain universal and cross barriers of time. This is heightened by the presence of a laptop, desktop computer, typewriter, phone and book on stage, all of which are symbols of communication throughout the ages, speaking to each other from their personal presents.
The most hilarious moments in Gatz are found when some of the language of The Great Gatsby is shown to be simply absurd, accentuated by knowing looks to the audience. Likewise, the meeting of Daisy and Gatsby in Nick’s house (“They were sitting at either end of the couch, looking at each other as if some question had been asked, or was in the air, and every vestige of embarrassment was gone.”) has the audience on the floor. To do so is not to negate the power of Fitzgerald’s writing, but rather demonstrate his genius as a satirist and his understanding of comedy.
Naturally, when presenting such a well-loved book on stage, differences in opinion are bound to be deepened; to my mind, Lucy Taylor’s Daisy is altogether too composed and Susie Sokol’s Jordan too energetic to be faithful to the book, whilst very few would argue that Ross Fletcher’s cameo as Henry C. Gatz is masterful. On the other hand, however, Jim Fletcher’s Gatsby is powerfully enigmatic, his deep tones rumbling through the theatre (though once the resemblance to John Malkovich becomes clear, it’s easy to become distracted). Shepherd is truly brilliant as our narrator, and sustains the energy throughout his six-and-a-half-hour stage time to keep the words alive.
When we live in a world governed by excess and greed, The Great Gatsby has a lot to say, so it’s unsurprising it is currently seeing a resurgence in popularity (though EVS were undoubtably ahead of Lurhmann and co, seeing as they initially presented this show in 2005). But even more than this, Collins and his company remind us of the pleasure which can be gained from allowing ourselves to be absorbed by a book free of the distractions of modern life and highlight the centrality of words to the experience of reading as the ‘e-book versus paper-book’ debate becomes fiercer. We shouldn’t be surprised if more readings in this vein take place in the future (though books longer than this may have to be edited) as it becomes clearer that audiences want to be taken away from the troubles of modern life for longer than the customary evening. For the time being, however, Gatz has quite possibly just stolen the title of Theatrical Event of the Year.
Pinterest board here: https://danhutton.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/gatz/