by Lissy Lovett
Gatz opened at the Noël Coward Theatre two weeks ago, and ever since then my Twitter feed has been full of comments like “I think I might have just seen the best piece of theatre ever,” and “ #gatz just blew my mind #gatzlondon”. When I bought my and my viewing companion’s tickets (up on the balcony, the most expensive seats down front are a whopping £117.50, which is a bit beyond Mostly Film’s budget), we had thought that maybe we’d sneak off halfway through if we didn’t like it. Heck, as it turned out we could have gone to watch England lose to Italy. But this blanket of praise put a different slant on things. What if we didn’t like it? Would that mean there was something wrong with us?
As it turned out I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. There’s a great deal to admire here, but somehow it just missed drawing me in. The piece, created by New York’s Elevator Repair Service, begins in an office, where an office worker discovers a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and starts to read it out aloud when his computer won’t turn on. As the story progresses his co-workers become involved, taking on parts in the story, and office furniture gets pressed into use as props – an office chair becomes a car, bottles of water stand in place of drinking glasses. By the end of the story, eight hours later, the office worker isn’t reading the book any more, but telling the story straight to the audience. The sound and light cues – to begin with seemingly being triggered by an onstage technician – are now happening independently, and what was once just a man reading a book has, possibly, turned into something quite different.
Yes, you read that right, eight hours. Only six and a quarter hours of that are actually performance; there’s a dinner break right in the middle, and a couple of intervals, but we were in the theatre from 2.30pm until nearly 11pm. That’s a long time and, I’m sorry to say, it felt like it. I think sometimes with these endurance and event pieces of theatre that audiences can feel that just by making it to end that they’ve achieved something, and at that point you want to say that it was important, or worth doing, because otherwise you’d need to admit that actually you wish you’d stayed in and watched Formula 1. Add in the high price of the tickets, and there are a lot of reasons for wanting to be moved. I wanted to be moved. But I just wasn’t.
Scott Shepherd in the central narrator/Nick Carraway role gives an assured performance. Every single word of the novel, apart from the chapter headings, is spoken during the play, most of them by him. He certainly says a lot of words during the show, and he only stumbled a couple of times. Apparently he’s performed the play so often he knows the whole book by heart. He’s ably assisted in his endeavour by an excellent sound system and radio mic, but still, that’s a lot of talking. Having said this, I am not as amazed and impressed by this feat as some. He’s a professional actor. He ought to be able to talk well. That’s his job. However, it was very engaging to hear the book read in an authentic accent. When I read books they often do put an accent in my head, but I think I often get it wrong. This was the right accent, and that was lovely to listen to.
When the curtain call finally came I was mildly surprised to see 12 other actors come forward to take a bow. It didn’t seem that many as the show was going by. I was impressed with Susie Sokol who played Jordan. She has a beautiful physicality that was both awkward and graceful at the same time. The show reminded me of a children’s dressing up game, like one morning this group of office workers had decided just to lose themselves in the story instead of doing whatever it was they were meant to be doing. People often talk about storytelling in theatre, this play takes that theme literally, and in doing so makes the story almost into a myth or a fairy tale.
I don’t know the book at all; I think I read it a long time ago, and before I went into the theatre on Sunday all I could recall about it was that it was set in the 1920s and had a sad ending. The show would be a completely different experience for someone who knows the book. The cast cleverly show up the more ridiculous passages without taking the mick, and there was a fair amount of ostentatious knowing laughter from the seats around us. With hindsight I wonder if I should have read the book first, I’m sure that I would have got more out of the play. And I’d say that if The Great Gatsby is one of your favourite books you should definitely go to see Gatz if you can.
The beauty of presenting the story like this is that it isn’t meant to be literal. When you watch a film or play adaptation of a favourite book it never ever looks quite right, because it doesn’t match up with what’s in your head. With this play the pictures in your head can remain – Jim Fletcher isn’t meant to be Gatsby, he’s meant to be someone pretending to be Gatsby. Baz Lurhmann’s film looks like it will be beautiful, but the only person whose mental image of Gatsby is Leonardo DiCaprio is Leonardo DiCaprio himself. And films date quickly; according to my viewing companion the 1974 film elicited gales of laughter at Stirling University Film Club when he watched it in the 90s. Gatz will remain new for as long as it is performed.
It is left deliberately unclear what the office where the story is set is meant to be doing. It was a pretty faithful replication of my first office in the late 90s, right down to the electric typewriter, single massive PC, and dusty archive boxes. Very early in the story, Carraway answered the phone with “bond trading”, words from the book, but the only work going on at any point seemed to be a bit of typing from Gatsby, and other characters showing each other single sheets of paper in a meaningful way. I fear that too much of my headspace was taken up with wondering what it was that they were meant to be doing, a question that would never be answered.
During the show I particularly liked the sound design by Ben Williams. There was sophisticated use of radio mics. Street sounds, crickets, a piano and multiple loud car crashes added variation to the show and kept my interest. The auditorium has been slightly reconfigured for the show: a raked bank of seats has been built over the normal stalls. I’m not quite clear why this was, it can’t have been cheap. I suppose it’s to create a more “studio” feel, but in that case, why not put the show on in an actual studio theatre, there’s enough of them about.
At the end of the show more than half the audience gave a standing ovation, so there clearly were people there who were seeing “the best piece of theatre ever” and having their minds blown, but for some reason, and it’s hard to put my finger quite on why, I just wasn’t among them. Gatz made me think, but didn’t really get close to my heart.
Lissy Lovett tweets here and is looking forward to the Olympics.
Gatz is on at the Noel Coward Theatre.