Natasha Tripney: Two things stop happening fairly early on in Elevator Repair Service’s crazily ambitious, marathon run-through of The Great Gatsby. It quickly stops being a production in which one man reads from a book, becoming something far, far richer and more compelling, and it ceases to be anything like the feat of endurance that it might have been. The prospect of an eight hour (well actually six, once the various intervals were taken into account) production was – on paper – a daunting one. People had come prepared, toting isotonic drinks, Costa cups, and emergency pasties. But after the first hour had passed, it became clear that the production’s length wasn’t going to be an issue and that, if anything, the length was one of the least interesting things going on here.
Being read to, or at, is a different process to reading, it obliges you to engage with the text in a particular way: Fitzgerald’s gleaming prose – in which no word is ever used carelessly, in which every line is exquisitely weighted – is made to live, in more ways than one. And whether what he’s doing is actually reading or a remarkable feat of memory, Scott Shepherd – the Nick Carraway stand-in – has an incredible grasp of that rhythm, the ebb and flow, the pacing and the pausing; he knows when to stop and let the words settle. The production is not afraid of silence.
The reconfiguration of the theatre aids the sense of connection. Temporary seating has been installed creating a rake in the stalls that ascends to the dress circle. This unifies the audience, intensifying the experience. It so dramatically alters the landscape of this West End theatre, that it begs the question: if this can be done, why isn’t it done more often (financial reasons presumably, but it’s a shame). This restructuring of the space primes the audience from the start. This is clearly going to be something other, something memorable. Not only does the production not disappoint, it transcends expectations that were already unreasonably high.
Stewart Pringle: The set-up has been much discussed. A kind of Nick Carraway is still our narrator, but now he’s an office worker whose computer is on the blink and so amuses himself with a dog-eared copy of The Great Gatsby, beginning by idly reading through the first pages as a straggle of co-workers slip into the moulds of Fitzgerald’s characters and the world of West and East Egg bleeds through the thin partitioned walls. Every word of the novel is present and correct, every ‘he said’, ‘she said’, every moment of stunning poeticism and each of the handful of clangers that any sane ‘normal’ adaptation would happily discard. Its length is proverbial, but despite the feeling of trepidation as you file into the theatre with a Kendal Mint Cake in your pocket after leaving the details of your next of kin at the box office, its heady ambition is dwarfed by its success.
Things start slowly as Nick sips his coffee from a paper cup and rubs his post-commute eyes. When he begins to talk he sounds impossibly quiet and restrained, worst of all he takes his time and the wodge of paper in his hand lolls like a threat. This is Andy Kaufman’s prank taken one step too far: those boats against the current have rarely felt less reachable. The first hour is a triumph of the careful restating of terms, a Xanax that melts slowly in the mouth as Shepherd retrains us for what is to come. By the time a bolshy security guard (Robert Cucuzza) has forced himself into the tawdry wealth of Tom Buchanan and taken Nick and Laurena Allen’s dowdy secretary (by now the image of Myrtle Wilson) on a spin to New York everything has changed. The novel has hacked into the office and Gatz has hacked into us, we have been reprogrammed for its unique grammar and lost our theatre-going habits along the way.
These habits include the laws of cause and effect, the requirement for each action to occur only once for us to understand it. Here the text foreshadows onstage incidents and onstage incidents quietly mime the upcoming text. Time is gently dislocated, leaving direct representation (when it occasionally occurs) feeling cheap and obvious.
Natasha Tripney: Louisa Thompson’s set is wonderfully detailed in its shabbiness. Everything on stage is a little bit foxed, a little bit dented and crumpled at the corners. Shepherd’s chair has a large rip in its seat. There are ducts and vents, a white board, a job lot of wood veneer, and the kind of heavily-laden pin-board that would have made Verbal Kint’s day. It’s hard to place the space in time; it could exist anywhere in the last quarter century and when they’re done you could easily mount a production of Glengarry Glen Ross on the same set. It’s in no way a blank canvas, but it’s a canvas of sorts, and as the production becomes less and less reliant on playful foreshadowing and pleasing visual echoes of the text, the furniture is tidied away, the sofas shifted, until Shepherd is left sitting at a bare grey table the book by now abandoned at his elbow, speaking directly to the audience.
Sound plays a huge role in the texturing of this world, teched from a desk at the side of the stage: traffic noise, fog horns, harbour clangs, the constant chirp of crickets, and, of course, music – the crackle of the gramophone – are layered together over this dour, everyday backdrop, transporting players and audience both. This sense of transportation reaches its height during Myrtle’s party when bits of office stationery are strewn about the stage like confetti, hurled into the air with casual disregard as the music plays, the glasses clink and Myrtle totters around the stage, achingly poignant in her ill-fitting gown, oblivious to Tom’s Vesuvian temper.
Stewart Pringle: The setting in a peeling office of swivel chairs, unfunny three-panel strips tacked to notice boards and patient, lethargic asbestos is a cunning fit. The absurd immensity of Gatz itself reflects the fact that a single working day, one of those days when the network’s down and you’re too shagged to even busy-work your way from 9 to 5, a single one of those evil days wastes more minutes than it takes to enjoy one of the world’s finest works of literature. Offices are nonsense: living organisms in a box doing their level best to impersonate the cogs of a machine. Time goes in and the fleshy gears shuffle back and forth with hopeless inefficiency. If by some occult alignment of this faux-contraption with innumerable others and the aimless violence of the market money is actually produced, then the machine is functioning and success trickles down through its parts like golden oil. If it doesn’t, the parts are yanked out and re-arranged or replaced like the feed-tray of a photocopier. The Great Gatsby may be about the American Dream, but this absurd reality from which Gatz springs is what the American Dream is about.
The company waltz tentatively around this setting, the use of office ephemera as stand-ins for the props and characters of 1920’s Long Island is a clever joke, but make it do too much work and it could easily wear thin at the knees. Instead, for the most part, objects are used wittily and even sparingly, with incongruous juxtapositions such as a cocktail cabinet worth of liquor held in document holders stop things from feeling too pernickety. Like the pacing and most of the humour, the setting bears the traces of many years of experimentation and refinement, the gradual adaptation of dramatic and symbolic architecture to a new scale of story telling. The use of a rag-doll for Myrtle’s impulse-bought puppy is sidesplitting, the use of a jammed filing cabinet to represent the toil of her life with her mechanic husband George is quietly tragic. A triumphant moment comes towards the end of the second hour: the sight of Gatsby standing in the office doorway under fly-blown neon staring with haunted abstraction at the tiny spec of light on Daisy’s dock, here represented by a sickly green LED like a dot-matrix printer on standby.
Natasha Tripney: Mark Barton’s lighting is pretty inspired throughout, no more so than when Lucy Taylor’s Daisy sits in front of the office window, haloed by the strip light glare, almost seeming to glow – a bright, clean, golden light – during that tense sticky scene in the New York Plaza Hotel where the east coast heat taints the air and the promised mint juleps go unmixed as everything around Gatsby finally begins to crumble. The distance between the world of the book and the drab, battered environment of the office is never greater.
Stewart Pringle: Shepherd is obviously the fulcrum of the production, and his low drawl is effortlessly transfixing. Better than this, he is also a creditable Nick on any terms. Here he swells up to fill Gatsby’s story in a way he never wanted to but fundamentally always has, only here his presence is almost absolute. Fitzgerald’s nervous and scrupulously honest narrator has always stolen the show from his subject, here he functions in a new duet with the book, and in the last half hour, when he places it down to recite the final chapters from memory, it’s almost as if a character has left the stage.
The supporting cast are generally effective but the casting of bald and monotone Jim Fletcher as Gatsby gives the self-deluding millionaire a new power and strangeness. Gatsby’s greatness has always been an elusive strand of Fitzgerald’s novel, like Nick the reader somehow feels it without knowing why, trusts in a thin, patchwork man made of patent fabrications. Fletcher is an absurd presence in his pink suit and knowingly ironized physical inadequacies, but he is still somehow the most engaging Gatsby in living memory. Perhaps even better is Cucuzza’s bullish Tom, frighteningly dumb and just as vicious, jangling a bunch of keys against his leg like the jailor he has always been. Lucy Taylor makes for a brittle, quivering Daisy, but neither her nor the rather thin Susie Sokol (as golf pro Jordan Baker) are consistently convincing. Elsewhere Allan’s Myrtle is movingly naÃ¯ve and both Vin Knight and Ben Williams perform strong comic turns in smaller chorus roles.
Natasha Tripney: Though the various servants, bedazzled hangers on, and even Gatsby’s dad, are given form, the one character of note not embodied in any way is that of Meyer Wolfshiem, Gatsby’s shady Jewish associate with his forest of nostril hair and unsettling dental cufflinks, a loosely fictionalised version of real-life World Series-fixer Arnold Rothstein. In his depiction, Fitzgerald slid spectacularly into Dickensian caricature when describing Wolfsheim, and the company both allude to and circumvent this problematic aspect of the book by having Shepherd speak his lines without ever ‘playing’ him. (Curiously Baz Lurhmann has cast Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan in the role for his forthcoming Gatsby adaptation).
Stewart Pringle: Gatz is a masterpiece of brave decisions and tireless energy, kept pinned to the stage from lunchtime till supper by John Collins’ unfailing ear for the undulations of Fitzgerald’s prose and his eye for inventive stage-craft. Experimental, mental but entirely accessible, it’s a landmark piece that will cast a long but inspiring shadow over future adaptations of any major work, let alone The Great Gatsby.