In their two-person adaptation of this classic story of love, obsession, carelessness, and excess, The Wardrobe Theatre and The Wardrobe Ensemble have made a show filled with both the wry inventiveness associated with both companies, and a real sense of both the humanity and the insincerity that fill the lives of its characters.
The two performers, Tamsin Hurtado Clarke and Jesse Meadows, split the characters between them, flowing seamlessly from person to person with the jut of a jaw or the drape of a jumper. This playful switching creates some of the most effective moments of the show. In the first conversation between languid Daisy and reserved Nick, for instance, both are played by Meadows who constantly switches from reclining on the sofa, to sitting awkwardly at the edge of it, the distance between the two characters increased by the fact they are existing within the same body.
The performers use simple markers to delineate each person in the story, but these characters are not quite caricatures – they seem to be normal people suddenly made strange in one aspect or another. From golf star Jordan’s arms, held constantly back from her body, to gas station owner George Wilson’s distorted voice, the performances encapsulate a contradiction at the heart of most of the characters. Their lives seem full of drama but empty of meaning, their emotions large but often fleeting.
Among the braying and shrill laughs of these strange figures, Hurtado Clarke plays a perfectly beguiling Gatsby. For the audience to understand Nick’s fascination and affection for Gatsby they need to feel it too, and it is all too easy in this version. This Gatsby is open and naïve and charming. The understated performance of Gatsby, compared with the loudness and oddness of the other characters, make him seem authentic despite his lies, ostentation and obsession.
The small cast also serves to push these already tightly intertwined characters even closer together. At one of Gatsby’s infamous parties Jordan says ‘I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.’ The two-person cast makes a tiny party, and the characters have no privacy at all. With no distractions, no other bodies to hide behind, relationships seem more claustrophobic, secrets always only moments away from being discovered.
The parties themselves are a little harder to show with so few people. There are some lovely touches – wild painting on the back drop, fireworks thrown up from Nick and Gatsby’s fingers and caught by the sound design – but it feels like they still don’t quite capture either the opulence or emptiness of Gatsby’s parties. The rest of the show, though, is full of wonderfully inventive and evocative little physical touches – from racing cars along the back of the sofa, to a drink poured into the glass of the reclining Daisy echoing Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.
Perhaps the best of the recurring visual motifs is the way the backdrop is decorated throughout the show – important features in the story are painted so they are always there, no scene quite able to escape the unsettling eyes of a oculist’s advertisement, or the pull of a green light. For the most part the design (by Katie Sykes) crosses little nods to 20s aesthetics with a contemporary look, as emphasised by the opening video introduction. The show evokes as much nostalgia for when we could be in rooms getting drunk with other people, as it does for the roaring twenties. Perhaps my favourite stylistic flourish comes when the performers announce the beginning of each new chapter; for the most part the lighting is gentle and atmospheric, but when a chapter ends everything is brought up into the stark, bright light of the morning after, characters momentarily shaken out of their reveries of alcohol or obsession, able to see clearly the cracks around them.
As with many stage adaptations of books, the show makes the story seem oddly brief – all the events are there, but the time between them seems squashed and indistinct. Here it is a benefit, serving to highlight how brief and intense the whole affair really is, a mayfly of a story whose excesses seem almost ridiculous in their shortness.
The Great Gatsby is available online until 31st March. More info here.