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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
GATZ
at the Noel Coward

WORD FOR WORD
By JOHN NATHAN

  Gary Wilmes, Laurena Allan, Annie McNamara, Kate Scelsa and Scott Shepherd/ Ph: Paula Court

You expect to feel a few things when watching eight hours of theatre: a sense of occasion and backache among them. But if at the end of a marathon as long as this word-for-word rendition and performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece "The Great Gatsby" the overriding sense is one of feeling lucky, then you know something special has happened.

In this case thanks for that feeling must go mostly to New York's audacious Elevator Repair Service theatre company. But credit must also go to the diverse London theatre festival known as LIFT (London International Festival Theatre) for bringing into the heart of the commercially hard-nosed West End a show that would mean financial suicide for any commercial theatre producer. LIFT has even reconfigured the Noel Coward Theatre for the transfer, elevating the front section of the stalls and transforming the space into one that is almost as intimate – though nowhere near as grubby – as the claustrophobic onstage office in which all the action takes place. 

It is hard to think of a less likely setting for a story populated by the fabulously wealthy and the just plain fabulous. Louisa Thompson's set is the kind of colourless, life-sapping workplace from which anybody in his right mind would want to escape. And so it is that Scott Shepherd's bored office worker absent-mindedly picks up a copy of Fitzgerald's book while waiting for his broken computer to reboot. Reading out loud is a kind of joke at first, one that his fellow office workers can either be a part of or ignore. Inevitably they become engrossed, each taking on a character in Fitzgerald's book. 

To transpose prose so completely to the stage, director John Collins has invented a new language that manages to stay utterly faithful to every word of the original while simultaneously interweaving the drudgery of office business with Fitzgerald's plot. Eventually the plot takes over completely. It's not a flawless technique. And sometimes Shepherd's performance as Fitzgerald's narrator Nick – which is necessarily delivered at a low-fi pitch and volume that is sustainable for eight hours (including breaks) – is better listened to than watched. There are passages when averting the eyes from the distracting action on the stage can help the ears tune in. And sound is used very effectively. Every worker's entrance into the office via the main door is accompanied by an ugly groan from some nearby industrial machinery. Or perhaps it's road traffic. But when the door closes it fades away and the sound of Gatsby's world reasserts itself as music from one of his parties or the always-evocative rasp of cicadas serenading Long Island nights.

But for the most part the risks that Gatz takes pay off handsomely. Perhaps the biggest of these is the counterintuitive decision to cast Fitzgerald's high-society locations in the most banal setting imaginable, and to have his high-society characters played by the most ordinary of people, all of which has a terrifically democratising effect on this great piece of literature. 

What counts most, however, is that the thing that makes "The Great Gatsby," well, great – Fitzgerald's writing – is held sacred. And apart from casually anti-Semitic descriptions of Meyer Wolfshiem, Gatsby's Jewish gambler associate, Fitzgerald's exquisite prose here becomes a concert of perfect sentences, transporting descriptions and humbling insights into the human heart. Gatz is the play that the book deserves.

 


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