Written for Total Theatre
If I love a book I devour it as quickly as possible. I’ve spent days reading when I should be eating, sleeping or working. I don’t think I’m alone in this; it’s the absolute absorption in such occurrences that appeals to us, to be able to turn our backs on this world and leap into another. In such circumstances eight hours seems paltry. Even so I could not have expected the extraordinary adventure that Elevator Repair Service’s uncut version of The Great Gatsby turns out to be.
Scott Shepherd is a white collar worker stuck in the tedious monotony that marks all dingy office environments. This one is particularly dank, with designer Louisa Thompson going out of her way to create a shabby counterpoint to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s glittering universe. Whilst waiting for his ancient computer to whir into life, Shepherd finds a thumbed copy of The Great Gatsby on his desk and begins to read. This action begins a transformation in both him and his co-workers, who gradually take on the roles in Fitzgerald’s book for a word-for-word retelling.
Elevator Repair Service cleverly set up and entwine two very separate worlds with subtle ease. Colleagues wonder what Shepherd is doing just as they are subconsciously syncing into the story; they pick up telephones on cue or interrupt our increasingly surprised narrator to speak for the characters that have possessed them. In the midst of all this Shepherd’s descriptive interludes slide into the dialogue as naturally as a bootlegger into 1920s high society. It’s sophisticated but ever so simple.
Even so I expect it to take me a while to sink into the rhythm of this performance, but from the off I am hooked. As the flash of a neighbour’s watch-face cheekily tells me the first section is almost up, I realise two hours have disappeared. After a discombobulating break in the outside world, I return to the darkened space and kick off my shoes, letting the warmth of Shepherd’s voice lull me back into a place of attentive meditation. How quickly the reality on stage has become mine. The childish nostalgia of being read to rushes over me. It’s been far too long since I allowed myself, or was offered, such a pleasure.
Alan Bennett once wrote: ‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you… And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’ This is never more real than in Gatz, as Shepherd reaches out to us through Fitzgerald’s story. He holds us with a strong and safe grip as we navigate the psychological and social complexities of this brittle landscape.
Shepherd speaks almost continually throughout (he reads but, incredibly, knows the text off by heart); he is the doorway into this towering event, a trustworthy and accessible presence. As such it is not only his passionate and empathic performance as Nick that moves us, but also the amount that such a physical endeavour costs the actor. At the end of the eight hours you feel Shepherd has given a piece of himself (as Gatsby has done to those who betray him) and it’s a piece he will not get back.
It is half way through when you realise that Gatz is a truly unique theatrical event. This is a new form of performance, a hybrid of traditional storytelling and contemporary theatre. In many respects it surpasses both, a towering monument to oral narratives and the expressionistic possibilities of performance itself.
It does this by knitting together the potential of each. We are not only being told the story in a way that echoes cave men, Jesus and old wives, but also in a form that illuminates the themes within the book itself. With their gestic performances the cast are constantly playing with layers of characterisation and believability, in a move that mirrors the social roleplaying engaged in by Gatsby and his gang.
Jim Fletcher as Gatsby is truly remarkable because his heavy likeness and solemn persona are so anti what we believe the ‘Great’ man to be. At first he stands out like a sore thumb. This casting choice makes us behave as Tom and even Jordan and Daisy eventually do, seeing him as an oddity and judging accordingly. Fletcher’s inappropriateness is remarked upon in the audience just as Gatsby is whispered about. But Fletcher’s gentle performance wins our hearts even as Gatsby is losing the one he desperately longs for.
Throughout, the tone of John Collins’ direction echoes that of Nick’s narration. A playful and inquisitive opening underlines the comedy in Fitzgerald’s witty book, before becoming ever heavier and more poignant as Nick and Fitzgerald move onto more sombre judgments.
Gatz shines a light on Fitzgerald’s novel, highlighting overlooked passages and reigniting the more recognisable ones with a brilliance that is dazzling. In the final section, as Shepherd speaks Fitzgerald’s words on an almost empty stage, Gatsby’s loneliness is crystallised and a moment of genuine understanding passes through the room. It’s an emotional end to an epic journey that succeeds not only in stealing you away from this reality but in illuminating another with breath taking clarity. If only more novels could be given this astonishing treatment.
Runs until 15th July – more information go here.