Nothing is quite as it seems. The underlying theme of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece (and the source of a lot of my A-level pretension) imbues this immersive theatre version of the story with a wondrous dream-like quality. It’s the kind of duplicitous spectacle that leaves you thinking: “Did I really see all of that? Was that really three hours?” It seems as if no time passes between being ushered into the ‘pharmacy’ and leaving at the end of the performance.
The initial reveal of the theatre space is particularly beautiful. Through the curtain streams light and music, and overlooking it all from the balcony we can make out Gatsby himself (Oliver Tilney), master of the illusions. Visually, the evening is stunning: a game of extremes using design by Robert Readman that contrasts the dazzling finery of Daisy’s boudoir with George and Myrtle Wilson’s cramped dive of an apartment. Audience members take on the role of intruder when passing these spaces on the way up to the party. Depending on the path taken and the actors followed, it is possible to never enter these rooms at all. The evening’s immersive element instead allows for each person present to chart their own course through the narrative.
This conceit is highly engaging, but it does come as a double-edged sword. There’s a good use of pacing and plenty to do that’s unconnected to moving the plot forward. You could just as easily grab a drink and learn to Charleston as you could watch that perfectly agonising tea party between Gatsby and Daisy (Amie Burns Walker). Moments like these are designed to unite the audience again, with Michael Lambourne as the unreliable narrator Nick guiding people towards specific parts to watch.
The downside, paradoxically, is that there’s never a dull moment. Much like at a house party, you can be sat in one room but wondering all the while what you could be doing or watching in another. It helps to come in a group and compare notes if you want to take in everything on offer. If anything, the uncertainty forces the audience to mingle more and share their knowledge. I kept only seeing flashes of Holly Beasley-Garrigan’s exuberant Jordan Baker and Tilney’s Gatsby, yet in someways this seemed fitting as the pair are most elusive and closed of Fitzgerald’s characters.
Alexander Wright’s direction takes great care to give the Valley of Ashes’ residents depth of character. Hannah Davies responds to the sadness cowering behind Myrtle’s material fanices and wrenches that anxiety to the surface, securing her as the stand-out performer of the night. Thomas Maller’s Tom Buchanan also gives a superb performance, simultaneously capturing our villain’s brutishness and his undeniable charm.
I’ve never been impressed by film adaptations of Gatsby. To me, something always seemed missing from Luhrman’s lavish mess of sequins and electroswing. The Guild of Misrule have nailed the aesthetic but they’ve also unlocked the tension which comes hand in hand with the intrigue of Gatsby. We don’t need to physically see Dr T. J. Eckleburg when we’re sat at the table where Daisy is forced to admit her affair to her husband. Walking through the drama, catching glimpses of illicit courtship: this is all that’s really required to engage with one of the great works of literature. It’s also enough to make you wish for another invite to West Egg.
The Great Gatsby is on in York until 7th January 2017. Click here for more details.