1 July 2012

The best show in London – or anywhere else, period. My review of Gatz, the extraordinary word-for-word reading of The Great Gatsby by New York based theatre company Elevator Repair Service.

Like most regular theatregoers, I often get to the point where I consider that I’ve seen it all: full frontal nudity, site-specific theatre set in disused public toilets, Shakespeare in Gudjurati,  improvisations where actors are fed lines from a hat, masked rites in disused town halls, Kathikali performances on riverbanks in southern Kerala, women stomping around in high heels in paddling pools, classical tragedy retold using sock puppets, and way, way too many solo shows where the actor coils up into the foetal position and re-enacts their traumatic birth.

Over the years, I’ve found my groove and preferences, which tends towards traditionally staged well-made plays with a strong emphasis on good dialogue, complex characterisation and a standard 3-act narrative structure, preferably starring Simon Russell Beale or Kristen Scott Thomas. Accordingly, I’ve gradually backed away from more experimental works, especially anything featuring the words “site specific”, “kinetic theatre” or “multi-media”. And there I’m mostly happy to stay, even with the realisation that most of my fellow audience members are Radio 4 listeners in their 60s from Surrey who’d quite like a garden allotment and wonder whether the Times Weekend supplement has lost its way.

Once or twice a decade, if you’re lucky, you get to see a piece of theatre that’s truly original, and manages to entertain and thrill and also redefine what we think of as theatre. I had that experience yesterday at Gatz, the New York based Elevator Repair Service theatre company’s extraordinary, word-by-word recitation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. At around 8 hours length (6 hours performance with 2 intervals and a 90 minute dinner break interspersed), Gatz initially sounds like nothing more than a high-concept stunt, designed to appeal to hardened theatregoers who want to score points for surviving endurance tests. But after committing almost a day of my life to seeing the show (in the distinguished company of friends Andrea and Greg), it had me gasping for superlatives. It was so good that it even made me rethink how often I’ve used superlatives in the past for shows much less impressive or memorable than this one, and make a mental note to stop describing everything as “brilliant” or “amazing” from now on unless it’s now “as good as Gatz”.

There is something brilliant and amazing about Gatz, which succeeds on almost every level, as absorbing entertainment, thought-provoking art, and a wonderful rendering of a great novel. It achieves the unachievable by making the experience of reading – typically something we do privately and quietly, and which isn’t shared with others – into a joyfully shared communal act. Slowly but surely, the play recreates, like nothing else I’ve ever seen, the gradual and magical process by which we as readers enter into a book, create a universe and live inside it, summoning characters and situations to life, to the point where we feel that we’ve become one of the characters.

That’s literally what happens in Gatz, which begins in a nondescript down-at-heel office that could be anywhere, but looks like the waiting room for the 9th circle of Hell. An unnamed early 40 something man arrives in the office, clearly to start his working day. He’s red-headed, balding, slightly dweebish looking, and unassumingly handsome, but the kind of guy you wouldn’t look at twice in the street, and certainly not an obvious leading man for an 8-hour West End play. As other non-descript co-workers wander in and out, he hangs his cheap beige trenchcoat on the office coatstand and tries unsuccessfully to reboot his ancient-looking computer. This sequence takes almost 15 minutes, performed in almost complete silence, but for the occasional sound of traffic noise offstage. It’s a slightly unnerving start for the audience, many of whom squirm nervously at the thought that this might set the pace for the next 8 hours, but it also acts to settle us down, adjust our speed dials to a slower pace, and listen and observe intently for what’s to follow.

Bored and looking for distraction, our unknown ginger finds a battered looking copy of The Great Gatsby in his Rolodex, and starts to read it aloud, in the monotonous sing-song voice of someone only half committed to what he’s reading. Slowly, he becomes more absorbed in what he’s reading, smiling to himself at the first flashes of Fitzgerald’s dry wit, and we see the light in his eyes as he realises “Hey, this isn’t half bad!” Slowly, very slowly, the world of the office starts to resemble the world of the book. Things start to happen on stage that are then described in the book, drawing a look of knowing surprise from our narrator and a laugh from the audience. Then one by one, his fellow office workers slowly assume the pose and eventually the speech of Gatsby’s protagonist: the pretty blonde in the pencil skirt becomes Daisy Buchanan, Fitzgerald’s fragile heroine; the curly-haired barrel chested security guard with the John Wayne walk and the keys in his belt becomes Tom, Daisy’s bullish husband; and the tall balding loner with the profile of a Roman senator and a sad, sweet smile becomes Gatsby himself. And our narrator? Well, he’s Nick Carraway, of course, Fitzgerald’s narrator, and, like Gatsby and Daisy, an emigre from the Mid-West who is “simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” in Jazz Age-era Manhattan and Long Island.

What’s fascinating is how Gatz manages to suspend our disbelief and draw us into the world of the story, while all the while reminding us that we are, quite literally, listening to a story being read. Somehow, the cast and a brilliant technical team manage to make us believe that we’re in among the decadent glamour and well-heeled despair of 1930s Long Island high society, without a single set change and with minimal costuming and props. The atmosphere is created by brilliant sound and lighting design, which, like everything else in the production, develops slowly and stealthily, creeping up on the audience and seducing us slowly until it becomes an integral part of the experience. In an inspired, tidily economical move, one of the sound mixers sits at a desk in the far right of the stage, occasionally hopping up from his post to offer the cast an umbrella or deliver a letter. The cast find inventively low-fi ways to create scenes: the raucously boozy party at Myrtle Wilson’s Manhattan apartment is signified by swinging jazz music while the cast spin playing cards around the stage and throw paper files into the air, only to pick all of them up dutifully once Tom’s fist brings the fun to an abrupt and violent end.

The staging is enormous fun to watch, but the hand-made, seat-of-the-pants feel of the staging serves a deeper and more profound purpose: it reminds us of the ways in which stories reveal themselves to us, step by step, accruing in detail until they expand to fill our consciousness, and of the way in which great novels aren’t born as single seamless product but as something painstakingly built through subtle and continual use of language. Of course, this production isn’t as improvisatory as it’s created to look: it’s the result of carefully planned and rehearsed choreography, performed by actors with marvellous timing and stagecraft. (Londoners are especially lucky, getting to see the show several years after its original performance, still with the original cast, who work together smoothly and seamlessly.) But it’s a form of staging which insists, quietly and without a lot of preachifying, on the possibility of creating great art with nothing more than a handful of words and the intention to tell a good story.

The approach doesn’t always work, mind: the famous scene where Gatsby meets up with Daisy after a long period of estrangement is played, rather tiresomely, as Marx Brothers farce, with characters running in and out of doors and plastic fish and spatulas being thrown around, though fortunately the cast quit before the joke got too laboured. And a couple of cast members weren’t quite on top of their game: Susie Sokol, who played Jordon Baker, had the staginess and affectation of the kind of unbearable student theatre production that Gatz could have been but mostly scrupulously avoided. She stole focus appallingly, and the energy literally died when she took control of the narrative for a couple of passages.

By the dinner break, most of the audience was hooked, though somewhat relieved for an hour and a half to stretch their legs and replenish with food and drink. Our afternoon screening happened to coincide with one of the first properly sunny days in an otherwise non-existent London summer, and it was genuinely surprising to emerge from the darkened theatre into bright afternoon sunlight and crowds of locals and tourists walking around in shorts with gelato and iced coffee. “It’s so Eurotrash,” Greg commented as we headed to Gaby’s Deli to hoover up some salt beef and pickles.

Whereas the first half of Gatz slowly seduced us with the cleverness of its concept and the offbeat mode of its storytelling, the second half held us spellbound as the Ginger narrator and the cast took us deeper into the gloom and despair of Fitzgerald’s story. For all its high-concept novelty, Gatz plays out the themes of Fitzgerald’s novel with remarkable faithfulness and accuracy. The Great Gatsby is, for my money anyway, the original and quintessential Great American Novel. Through his star-struck narrator, Fitzgerald shows how easily we’re seduced by the glamour of the monied rich, and has a conspiratorial sense of fun about entry into a life of decadent parties and the thrill of hanging out with charming, funny people. Just as effortlessly, Fitzgerald/Nick shows us the ugly underside of all the glitter that isn’t gold: Daisy and Tom’s unhappy marriage, Tom’s casual and terrifying violence, and all the marvellous parties and witty conversation masking the sadness and moral emptiness of a beautiful and damned generation.

Gatz traces this tragectory step by step, and some scenes pack an epic punch. In one especially beautifully staged scene, Gatsby admits his love for Daisy in the sweltering heat of a Manhattan hotel room. What’s most striking about the scene is its simplicity and silence: rather than playing up the melodrama, Gatz’s cast and crew sit on the scene, emphasising its quiet tragedy, wonderfully underscored by hazy golden afternoon sunlight and faint strains of the wedding orchestra playing in the floors below. Crucially, Gatz gets to the heart of the story: Gatsby’s shame over his white trash past, and his concoction of deception and corrupt business practice to re-invent himself as Gatsby and enter a society he never feels fully deserving of. Gatsby’s sense of being an interloper is nicely played by Jim Fletcher, who’s continually uneasy in his own skin and takes care over his words so as not to be caught out. And fittingly, Gatz matches Fitzgerald’s curious compassion for Gatsby’s fundamental decency, and shares Nick’s moral outrage as his former party guests abandon him in their droves.

Although Gatz‘s production was conceived well before the 2007 global economic crash, it plays as perfect theatre for an austere age, licking its wounds after a period of excessive and unsustainable partying. Again and again, we’re brought back to the sober clear-sightedness of Nick, the Midwestern narrator, played perfectly by Scott Shepherd, in one of the most extraordinary (and demanding) stage performances I’ve seen for years. In his rave 2010 review of Gatz, Ben Brantley, New York Times’ high priest(ess) of theatre, pinpointed the source of Shepherd’s unlikely appeal:

“The blurring of Nick the reader into Nick the narrator is, I promise you, unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the theater. From the beginning the two figures share a Midwestern accent and a plain, unmistakably American attractiveness that doesn’t call attention to itself. This neutrality is a perfect starting point for the rendering of a novel in which a reticent man finds himself drawn increasingly into the more flamboyant lives of others….”

A kindly word from Brantley goes a long way, especially if you want your production to have a life beyond pub theatre performances to supportive friends and family. But Brantley is typically right on the money: the strength of the production, as with the novel, rests with the sturdy central characterisation of Nick, a man dazzled by money and beauty but ultimately uncorrupted by what he sees. Nick, as portrayed by Shepherd, is our guide through the underworld of this production and the moral conscience of the story. In the course of six hours onstage, Shepherd transforms from a nebbish nobody into a narrator of striking intelligence and vitality. For Fitzgerald’s last, elegaic chapter –  some of the most beautiful prose ever written in English – he finally puts down the book and recites the text from memory, all the better to connect with the audience, who by this time are transfixed. Nick’s enduring appeal as a narrator lies in his sympathy for the outsider, and his compassion for his glamorous damaged friends despite their faults. Shepherd channels this compassion perfectly, sharing in Nick’s wistful sense of nostalgia as he intones Fitzgerald’s final, magical lines: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. It’s a line that encapsulates the futility of dreaming about the past and the impossibility of living life without those memories, however age-stained and illusory they might be. With its intelligence and compassion, Gatz gives us the gift of both of those insights in a public space, creating a wonderful shared experience from what’s normally a private moment.

By 10.45pm, we were exhausted but ecstatic, feeling like we’d been on an epic adventure and shared something fragile and beautiful with the actors. It’s the kind of emotionally satisfying experience that comes from putting in the hours – matched, of course, by a production that was worthy of this time investment – and which just wouldn’t be possible in a 2 hour production. (After this, standard plays and even most operas are going to feel lightweight by comparison). Uncharacteristically for London audiences, we rose to our feet immediately to applaud Shepherd and his cast for a truly marathon performance, the like of which we’re not likely to see again for a while.

But the lasting memories of Gatz aren’t the performances as much as they are Fitzgerald’s sublime, haunting prose, which, as recited so beautifully by Shepherd, lingered in my mind for days afterwards – which is how it should be, really. Hearing The Great Gatsby read aloud allows us to slip into a half-dream state, just like being read to when we were children, even as it forces us to concentrate on and savour every word of Fitzgerald’s text. I promptly re-read Gatsby on my Kindle in the days after the show, finding myself reading more slowly and carefully than I usually do, and lingering over every word and cadence and punctuated pause. It takes a very great and very generously-minded piece of theatre to remind us of the pleasure of reading books, which Gatz improbably achieves, as if by magic. A giant wolf whistle to all involved.

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