It's a bold experiment, scattered with clever ideas, and while it's easy to admire, it's also a gruelling journey for the audience
Review: 'Gatz', an eight-hour play that recites every word of 'The Great Gatsby'
Let’s start at the end. The standing ovation that, on Saturday night, greeted the conclusion of Gatz was instantaneous and prolonged. In the eight-hour (including three intervals) theatre production from American ensemble Elevator Repair Service, every single word of F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, is read out on stage. The sense that we had all – actors and audience alike – been a part of something extraordinary was unmistakable (although I suspect some of us were just keen to get the blood flowing to our toes again).
In truth, though, Gatz, which premiered in 2006, is easier to admire than to really love. It is a bold experiment, scattered with clever ideas, which ultimately wobbles under the weight of its own ambition. I may be a lone voice here – Gatz has won countless awards and was described by The New York Times in 2010 as a “remarkable achievement” – but, to my mind, the elation one feels on leaving the theatre doesn’t quite justify the gruelling journey.
One morning, an office worker called Nick (Scott Shepherd) arrives at his desk, only to discover that his computer isn’t working. While he waits for someone to fix it, he picks up an old copy of The Great Gatsby and starts reading it aloud.
At first, he seems almost bored. But then things begin to rattle along as life imitates art and Nick’s colleagues assume the roles of characters from the novel. A cantankerous security guard (Gary Wilmes) becomes wealthy cad Tom Buchanan; Nick’s boss (Jim Fletcher) slowly morphs into Jay Gatsby; and Nick, striding across the stage with his battered paperback, transforms into narrator Nick Carraway.
Added to this, the odds and sods lying around the office are used to re-create the scenes that Nick is reading out. So a shower of paper might symbolise a debauched party; a pair of swivel chairs, the front seats of a car. You get the idea. This can be great fun and the way in which, say, an evening at Gatsby’s mansion can be conjured up with scarcely a prop is testament, not only to the vitality of Fitzgerald’s prose, but also to a first-rate cast.
As Gatz progresses, however, the commitment to this conceit falters. After a few hours, the office setting is nodded to only occasionally. You might argue that this illustrates the process of submersion that takes place when you are engrossed in a great novel – after all, we are watching someone read The Great Gatsby aloud, not an adaptation of it. But when the everyday office trappings are phased out, the absurdity of the casting – Gatsby is an older, bald man, for example – begins to jar.
There is also a slapstick element to Gatz, which feels strangely at odds with Fitzgerald’s even, measured prose. At one point, a bizarre piano ditty, complete with clownish dance moves, takes place at Gatsby’s. Less a welcome comic aside, this scene only punctures the intensity that should accompany Gatsby’s desperate courtship of Daisy Buchanan (Lucy Taylor). There is contradiction at play here: on the one hand, director John Collins has shown sufficient faith in the novel to perform every word of it; on the other, not quite enough faith to leave it alone.
For all these reservations, though, Gatz does wield a certain power. For one thing, consuming the novel in one gulp gives us the chance to better understand Fitzgerald’s creative process, the way in which he stitches sentences and chapters together.
And undoubtedly, the finest moments come when his prose is given the space to breathe. Shepherd, who is on stage for every second of Gatz, is a fine narrator. The day – and half the night – belongs to him. Crucially, he doesn't try to upstage the novel. This is never more striking than during the concluding pages when an eerie calm descends on stage and Nick reflects on Gatsby and the frivolous, conceited crowd that surrounded him.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us," he says, at this point reciting from memory. You can’t fail to be moved.
At its best, then, Gatz brings a fresh sense of wonder to The Great Gatsby. Too often, though, it distorts the novel – or worse, actually diminishes it.
One further performance of Gatz is at New York University Abu Dhabi on Monday September 24 from 3pm to 11pm. Tickets: nyuad.nyu.edu