~ Posted by Simon Willis, June 11th 2012
F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is a classic short novel, and now an excellent long play. "Gatz", a stage version by the New York theatre company Elevator Repair Service, premiered in New York in 2010 and has just opened in London. And it has one obvious advantage over other adaptations, like the Robert Redford or Leonardo DiCaprio films. The American novelist Jay McInerney wrote in the Observer on Sunday that most adaptations of the novel have failed because they lose the element of the book that "somehow elevates a lurid and under-developed narrative to the level of myth": Fitzgerald's prose. In "Gatz", which starts at 2.30 in the afternoon and finishes at 10.30 at night, you get all 45,000 words of it.
The set-up works like this. A man turns up to a drab office one morning. His computer is faulty. He finds a book stuffed into his Roladex and begins to read. He gets interrupted by his colleagues. The towering bald man opposite takes phone calls, the secretary bustles around in pink. As he reads on, he stumbles over unfamiliar names like the "Dukes of Buccleuch". But then the story begins to grip both him and us. On a "warm windy day", the narrator Nick Carraway drives over to East Egg. The man in a blue shirt and grey slacks, who a moment ago was an office worker, is now Tom Buchanan, the swaggering philanderer of the novel, "always leaning aggressively forward". First snatches of dialogue, then whole scenes begin to flare on stage. At a party in a New York apartment, the drinks flow, papers are scattered in the bacchanal, Buchanan breaks his lover Myrtle's nose with "a short deft movement". Then, as the next chapter begins, the papers are gradually cleared away and the office returns to order. Near the end, Scott Shepherd, who's been reading since the beginning, puts the book down and goes on without it. He has become Carraway, and along the way the unlovely office has turned into a glittering mansion, a gas station, a golf course and a lonely graveside.
How do the cast make so much of so little? With the spark of a very long episode of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" or "Saturday Night Live". It turns out a tiny desk clock can be a steering wheel, and a sofa can be both a piano and a coffin—an ingenious way with props, using whatever's to hand and rolling with it. The reading and the drama flow around one another, exposing the wormhole between the reality of the room you're reading in and the fantasy of the world invented on the page. The best thing about this production is that it isn't just a staging of a novel. It's a staging of how it feels to read and become absorbed by a novel. It mirrors the workings of your own imagination.