Thursday, 14 June 2012

Gatz – LIFT – Noël Coward Theatre

So you know the basic deal here, right? Gatz is an adaptation for stage of F Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby. Or rather, it's EVERY SINGLE WORD OF THE GREAT GATSBY BEING SPOKEN IN A THEATRE. It's EIGHT HOURS LONG (including x2 15 minute intervals and 1hr30 for dinner).


But, what's really exciting about this production of a very well-known book is that, even if you've read it, the review will still need spoiler warnings; not because they've changed the book one iota, but because it is a staging that just keeps on surprising you.

So, what to do with this review? Well, my bet is the poor ladies and gents of the MSM will cover the not-too-spoilery review front (and it was genuinely heart wrenching seeing them all having to sprint from their aisle seats during the spontaneous standing ovation as soon as the show finished so they could go and try to sum this enormity up in 500 words before tomorrow morning), so this one might be better aimed at trying to decribe the event for people who won't get round to seeing it.

So, before I start, if you can get hold of a ticket, stop reading and do that instead. Gatz is extraordinary. An absolute must-see. All that stuff.

So, why's it so good?

Well, let's start slowly. The first great thing about it is what LIFT and Elevator Repair Service have done with the Noël Coward. Basically, the stalls seating has been replaced by a rake which runs from the front of the stage to the beginning of the first (Royal, I think it's called) Circle. This totally transforms the way the space feels, turning it from fusty, old-fashioned Pros. Arch to a match-fit space almost bursting with an energy all of its own. I mean, it must have lost the theatre quite a few seats, but if I was in charge, I'd be incredibly tempted to keep it. It makes the space feel infinitely more democratic. It totally changes the audience's relationship with the stage, and with other sections of the audience.

So, that's one thing, and it's totally unrelated.

But what of the production? It's someone – his name is Scott Shepherd – “reading” most of The Great Gatsby to a theatre full of people. “Reading” gets quote-marks because apparently he isn't reading at all. He's memorised 48,891 words, and just carries the book around turning the pages, for, well, for a lot of really good directorial/dramaturgical reasons. Not least of which is the frisson he gets about half an hour or so before the end when he closes it and does a whole section straight-to-audience.

So what does that look like? Well, here's the next brilliant thing, in a lot of ways it's totally non-naturalistic. Well, no. Let's unpack that. It uses naturalism a lot, but as a series of textures. I'll try to explain. It opens with Scott Shepherd – the actor, although Lord knows who he is at this point – walking into a very detailed naturalistic set of an office. Possibly a basement since the only windows on stage give onto a cheap-wood panelled corridor. And it's an office basement from, well, roughly speaking, the late eighties or early nineties – there's one computer and one electric typewriter (although the computer does seem to have an, ahem, “wireless” keyboard. Tsk), there's a large mobile phone with one of those aerials. It's not quite a brick, but not far off. And there are boxes and boxes of files on paper, stacked in those large metal shelving units generally found only in basements and garages.

This set never alters. Well, elements within it are moved around, but the basic dirty grey walls never shift or open magically to reveal 1920s interiors or anything. This is your lot, set-wise. But, actually, it's more than enough. And it's incredible.

Scott walks in, tries to switch on his computer and, while waiting the customary hours for a 80s/90s PC to boot, pings open his card index Rolodex(- is that right?) and discovers just a copy of The Great Gatsby inside. He looks at it, puzzled. And then opens it and starts to read. Out loud. And for a while, this is all we get. And that's fine. Gradually “his” co-workers begin to trickle into the office. Who *he* (Scott) is, is not pinned down. Partly he's the actor Scott Shepherd; partly this unnamed, anonymous office-worker; and now, partly Nick Carraway, the narrator of and character in The Great Gatsby.

A little while in, while he's reading to us – doing all the voices in the dialogue – one of his co-workers come over and mimes the gestures and the mouth-movements as he speaks another characters part. There's a beat. He looks at her. There's still this game of tension being played between “this is a man in an office reading a book” the “knowing we're all in a theatre” and “going *inside* the story”. Something that I absolutely love about the show is the way that it never seems to seek to fully resolve these three levels. At any given moment we can switch rapidly from a nod to the audience, to some guy in an office reading a book, to really involved dialogue in the novel.

The “casting” also makes use of this device. The performers all come in dressed for a day in the office. They are primarily playing office workers. As they are gradually co-opted by the demands of the novel, they might occasionally slip into something more period-appropriate, but there's a sense that they never “become” their characters. [Ok, I'll go there: this is the closest thing you can imagine to “Brechtian naturalism”]. Also, it feels like there are very few members of the cast whose physical appearance doesn't directly contradict that of the character they're playing/representing/*doing* from the novel. Mostly they're older, different shapes, have different colour hair – there's a lovely sight gag when at one point Nick tells us that women used to rub champagne on Gatsby's hair. He looks up at Gatsby (Jim Fletcher), who is mostly bald, and shrugs.

And this is the real power of the thing. We're given everything in profusion, but ways that make all the elements strain against one another to keep on reminding us that this isn't *just* a play, or *just* a reading of a novel, or *just* an incredible feat of memory, or *just* some excellent performances. ..

Actually, the extent to which these amazing performances still manage to foreground the writing time and time again is quite remarkable. I think I read TGG once, but I'm a pretty bad reader and it didn't make much of an impression. Here, where individual sentences are taken out and given as much space as they need to breathe, the effect is frequently almost dizzying. It felt like a revelation that there is *so much* *really great* prose in the book. There is also the odd duff line. At one point, Nick describes Gatz thus: “He was a son of God--a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that” - they're sitting opposite each other across the table in early morning light, and the context is one of extreme melancholy. Gatz lifts his head and Nick just looks at him, points to the book and makes a gesture which eloquently says: “Don't look at me like that, I didn't write it”.

Something else that foregrounds the writing, or makes the text come alive, and something which I think is actually at the core of the success of the whole production is Scott Shepherd's voice. Well, it's his whole presence; from the scrubby, wiry-looking, gingerish hair; interestingly lined, careworn-but-hard face; and resolute versus hangdog posture. But it's the voice most of all. It was in the opening moments of the final quarter when it struck me: Shepherd reads the book like Johnny Cash sings. I don't mean this sounds like “Johnny Cash reads Great Gatsby”, it goes further than that. The grain of Shepherd's voice brings out a similar musicality from the rhythms of Fitzgerald's writing. And it's this music the underscores the whole. Because, while Fitzgerald's novel is superficially born of the inter-war Jazz Age and the East Coast, really it's about a bigger America than that. That's another element that this production brings out so well. Space and weight are given to the sections where Nick reflects: “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all--Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life”.

It's interesting (and significant) that Elevator Repair Service have called their reading of the novel “Gatz”. Gatz is the original birth-name of the titular Gatsby. And in the programme the characters are identified by their Christian names only, almost as if to give them a chance. The Gatz of the novel reinvents himself over the six years following the end of the First World War until 1922: he “has a good war” and is promoted; goes to Oxford briefly as an ex-American serviceman; and returns to America to work for, well, perhaps the novel's most problematic character; a Jewish gangster called Meyer Wolfshiem.

[Perhaps reflecting our contemporary discomfort with Fitzgerald's characterisation (when he is introduced Nick speaks of him mostly as a nose), which borders on, if not crosses right over into, anti-Semitism, Wolfshiem appears to be the only significant figure in the book who is never really represented by an actor; even Gatz's father, a tiny walk-on part, gets a whole actor to himself, but Wolfshiem is sat-in-for in one scene, and just narrated by Scott/Nick in the other.]

The point of this reinvention is essentially his desire to realise himself according to his own massive estimation of himself. Later it might be driven by his desire to win the heart of the first nice girl he ever met; Daisy, but when his father shows up, he reveals to Nick the then Jim Gatz's copy of Hoppalong Cassidy in which the under-ten (?) Gatz Jr. has written a schedule for ambitious and dedicated self-improvement.

I guess it's all too easy to suggest that along with the rolling descriptions of America's landscapes, and the evocation of “a fresh, green breast of the new world”, Gatz/Gatsby also stands in for something like a dreamed-of embryo of the American Idea, but it also feels too potent a truth to ignore. That said, it is interesting that Fitzgerald in 1925 already divides his nation along East-West lines, since at that point the North-South divide of the American Civil War was more recent to them than WWII is to us now.

There's a suggestive note in the programme observing that TGG was published only four years before the Great Depression took hold. And there is curiously, counter-intuitively, something pre-lapsarian about the dingy basement in the late-eighties setting; a place where wings have yet to take dream, if you like. It is possibly somewhere between cheap and downright wrong to read anything and everything that comes out of New York now though a lens of post-9/11-isms, but here seeing the shadow of those now-absent towers doesn't feel entirely misplaced. On the wall of the office set the only picture is of a skyscraper. I'd have guessed The Empire State Building, but perhaps it is something earlier, something extant in the year that TGG was published (apparently the Woolworth Building was the world's tallest building in 1925). The skyscraper being perhaps another Gatsby-like bit of proto-typical American self-fashioning. Because this really is a state-of-the-nation staging. This is every bit as much about America as it is about our common humanity.

But, as Nick says:“Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.” And this is how and why both the novel and this staging of it operate and succeed. From a set of specific circumstances, performed within a pretend different set of circumstances, Gatz feels like it opens up not only a novel but the world.

In short, Gatz is a very, very fine piece of theatre indeed.

Also, did anyone else think to do the available “Elevator Repair Service fix LIFT” gag?


Obsidian Kitten said...

Lovely description. I found Gatz to be an "American" staging (in the most apropos way) of what is considered to be a "particularly American" novel...from its non-descript office setting to its rich, many-layered presentation. Your essay beautifully unfolds this, and so much more.

Unknown said...

I'd give my right arm to see this.