Review: Gatz

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It took Elevator Repair Service ten years to develop and get the rights to perform The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, and this verbatim-read version, Gatz, is the result. Performing at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End and presented as part of London International Festival of Theatre, Gatz is an epic eight-hour long (including intervals) theatre experience that doesn’t require a die-hard attitude to theatre to appreciate and admire.

In its basic construction, Gatz is a reading of the American classic The Great Gatsby. Every word, including the “she said, he said” and narrative voice, is recited in the performance. To call Gatz a reading is perhaps a little off the mark, as Elevator Repair Service, under the direction of John Collins, brings theatrical life to Fitzgerald’s words so that characters and narrative are lifted onto the stage to be observed by the audience. Set within a grubby American office, a lone worker struggling with his computer finds a copy of The Great Gatsby and begins to read aloud. As the story is spoken, the various office workers are drawn into the narrative to recite character lines, until the novel seemingly engulfs them. From Scott Shepherd’s (playing Nick) monosyllabic first paragraphs reading aloud, to a truly engrossing performance from the ensemble as a whole, Gatz is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Truly mesmerising, truly immersive and truly a piece of theatrical history – words that I do not use lightly.

The thing that strikes me most about Gatz is how, as an audience member, you are sucked into the action of the story. For those who have read the book before, or are attuned to other adaptions, the suspense, drama and twisting narrative will be known, but in the physical reading and portraying of the story both from directly reading aloud to the up-on-their-feet performing, the company ultimately draw us in completely and unquestionably. The first half of Gatz appears to be a funny affair, with Elevator Repair Service making light of Fitzgerald’s characters and narrative. This humour relaxes the audience into the proceedings of the performance, but over time this humour dissolves into the bleak and unsettling story of a man desperate to love, desperate to keep everything he wants together whilst it slowly falls apart. The beauty of Gatz is how Fitzgerald’s narrative soothes us over time. As an audience, we may have gone into the Noel Coward with excited faces, to witness and marvel at greatness, but by the end we feel more dumbfounded than anything else – exhausted, enthralled but weighed down with the bleak narrative. Gatz is a thing of greatness, but it is different to the theatregoing we’re perhaps used to, which in many ways makes it even more of experience, a collected, shared affair where a pact is made between performers and audience.

There is no denying Shepherd’s part within Gatz; his dual-portrayal as both Nick, our narrator for The Great Gatsby, and as the bemused office worker, is phenomenal. Within the last hour, Shepherd closes the book but continues to retell Fitzgerald’s story without faltering; the transition from merely reading aloud (although of course Shepherd does know every word off by heart) comes full circle when we watch the unfolding action on the stage like any other performance. That’s the joy of Gatz: it merges narrative elements of descriptive words and story into plausible characters that jump from the page to the stage. The story becomes (and here I apologise for comparing it to film) told in 3D.

If the show is an endurance test for theatre audiences, it certainly didn’t feel like it. The story passes us by easily, and whilst yes, there is a moment somewhere around hours four and five where my mind begins to wander, the action never once loses focus. It is a committed, unfaltering production that offers humour and richness in both direction and performance throughout. A rare thing to see over such time.

There are some seductive acting that plays out between the cast, especially Lucy Taylor’s portrayal of Daisy, as she falls deeply for Jim (played by Jim Fletcher). This pairing is wonderful to watch, especially as Fletcher’s facial expressions seem to say far more than Fitzgerald’s words do. Here is another reason to feel joyful about this production: within every line of Fitzgerald’s novel there is a richness that is found in Collin’s direction or through his ensemble. The pauses within the text create tension, suspense or just hilarity on the stage, and where the novel only paints half a picture, Gatz finishes it in glorious technicolour, with a richness far greater than expected.

Interestingly, the setting for the piece, a grubby office with adjacent corridors and rooms (design by Louisa Thompson) makes for the perfect back story to Gatz. The movements of the cast as they file papers, stare at computer screens or whisper in corners lend themselves to the moments where the characters from the novel take up their roles in the playing space. The transition is seamless and, when they are done, they merely go back to work, or leave altogether. Towards the latter half of the performance the office setting acts more as a stage space for the work to manifest itself within rather than an unfolding parallel story, and this is fine by the audience because at that point we are absorbed into the physical portrayal of The Great Gatsby.

Collins’s direction of the piece is, given its length, a remarkably simple but playful affair. The cast at times play out actions or gestures which at first don’t quite make sense – until, that is, Shepherd reads the narrative or following description. There is a point to make about the nature of some of these gestures, for at times the acting feels somewhat literal. Here I’m referring to the obvious portraying of action that is described within the novel. This, for want of a better phrase, ‘descriptive acting’ can at times seem an obvious directional choice, but equally there are moments of illumination from them. It’s no easy task, especially with six hours of performance to go through; it’s not surprising that with all those “he said… ‘he mumbled… he shouted” in the novel that there will be some literal translation.

A note also has to be made on Ben Williams, whose presence on the stage is kept throughout the entirety of Gatz bar a few minutes. Williams is both the sound designer and operator for the show, as well as playing Michaelis and other nameless characters. The exposed sound board, and laptop sitting downstage reminds us of the theatrical nature of Gatz, but there are moments when this notion is challenged or played with. For example, a door slamming in Nick’s face is played through sound instead of action, the effect heightened when it is then read from the novel. Having Williams present also helps to keep the liveness of the production, and whilst Mark Barton’s lighting design is, I believe, cued from the lighting box, this never takes away from the action or design.

It’s commendable to see the Delfont Mackintosh Theatre group, the owners of the Noel Coward Theatre, giving way to work of LIFT. The transformation of the auditorium to create the stalls into a rake-seating that connects with the dress circle gives Gatz a much more intimate experience, which is needed – after all when a story is read to you you want to feel connected. Of course the real praise must go to Elevator Repair Service which presents its retelling of The Great Gatsby with a richness and fulfilment that you are unlikely to get elsewhere. It’s a somewhat novel (oh the pun!) experience to have the whole book read aloud, and this certainly wouldn’t work for every novel. There are times when we revel in Fitzgerald’s descriptive narrative, and others when we rather see his characters come to life on the stage and forget it’s a novel at all. This balance is quite remarkable and works wonders. It might be a long affair at the theatre, but it certainly isn’t a strenuous one. Engrossing, enthralling, slightly exhausting but completely worth every minute.

Gatz is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre as part of LIFT until 15 July. For more information and tickets, see the LIFT website.