Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Gatz, Public Theatre, New York

Review: Gatz, Public Theatre, New York

With just over an hour break for dinner, Gatz – Elevator Repair Service’s exhaustive staged reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – rolls in with a runtime of eight hours. More or less the same length, in other words, as your standard nine-to-five working day. During that time, not one of Fitzgerald’s words gets missed out.

To think of Gatsby is to think of the fizz of a thousand champagne saucers. The novel’s world is, at least initially, one of resplendent social butterflies flitting tipsily across lush, expansive lawns. They are carefree creatures, moneyed enough to simply languish in the party of the present moment. Usually, of course, that party is one of Gatsby’s hosting, as the twenties roar with all their might.

Yet here, Elevator Repair Service, whose similarly all-inclusive reading of The Sun Also Rises headlined this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, place the glitz of Gatsby into a run down office. Its walls are dreary and stained. A leather sofa sits sadly next to a purposeful metal desk, itself laden with stationary and hulking office technology. Filling its shelves is a jumble of jaded files and sagging storage boxes, all presumably stuffed with receipts and tax returns.

The collision of these two seemingly oppositional worlds is massively fruitful. It’s not simply a case of using the physical vocabulary of the workplace to enact the novel, such that coffee mugs stand in for whiskey tumblers and swivel chairs serve as Rolls Royces. Rather the two co-exist. One is built upon the other, such that the dynamics of the office form the structural foundations that underpin those of the novel. Endless partying, non-stop flitting and flapping, you realise, is pretty hard work in itself.

The novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, materializes slowly in front of us. He is, at first, an anonymous office worker (played by Scott Shepherd), forever restarting his jammed computer, who picks up the book by chance and begins reading aloud. With a strange synchronicity, events around him echo his words: colleagues appear as characters enter, the phone rings just as Fitzgerald orders. Before long – much like the immersive process of reading – Carraway’s tale has taken flight, gaining a momentum that overtakes his daily routine. The office clock has stopped. Time has stood still and become embraceable, much as it did for the bright young things of the post-war generation. Gatsby’s world, as much as the office from which it stems, is the product of a hiatus in which work can wait and life – in all its brevity – can be lived. The normal order of play has been suspended. As Carraway says early on, “I had nothing better to do.”

Beyond the presence – and absence – of labour, the office environment serves to highlight a number of Fitzgerald’s other primary themes, amongst them money (earned both honestly and shadily) and technology. The computers and calculators of the workplace underscore the machine-lust of the twenties: swish cars, aeroplanes and the juicer that “could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.” Where once man was in thrall to the machine, ERS suggest, now he has become entirely – and overly – reliant on it. In fact, one always feels that this retrograde office is a product of that earlier period in American history. Gatsby holds the key to its aspirations. They – we – grind away in order to afford his lifestyle and luxuries. The American Dream has brought about the American Drudge.

Throughout one gets a sense of both Gatsby and, in the terms of formal logic, not-Gatsby. The great man himself, in fact, is a world away from the chiseled, dashing charmer one expects; the one so readily embodied by Robert Redford in Jack Clayton’s 1974 film. (Redford will doubtless be joined in that by Leonardo di Caprio in Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming screen version.) Gatsby, we imagine, fits into a great line of Hollywood smoothies. He is a Mr Ripley or a Rhett Butler, even a bar-room Bond.

Embodied by Jim Fletcher, however, he becomes a Lurch or a Boo Radley figure. Fletcher is a tall, broad, flat-footed hulk, almost entirely bald. Crammed into, for the most part, a mismatched suit of strawberry ice-cream pink with a chintzy cherry tie, he is far from the gravitational force that sets those about him tailspinning. More often, he seems a shy wallflower, reclusively avoiding his guests rather than leaving them guessing. And yet, there a strange charisma is retained. It’s entirely in keeping with something Milan Kundera drops into his novel Slowness: “People always think that a man’s fortunes are more or less determined by his appearance, by his hair or lack of it. Wrong. It is the voice that decides it all.” And, as Gatsby, Fletcher’s is a magnificent and seductive rumble: deep and soft and paternal, blunt but still penetrating. It is an authoritative purr that commands like a hand on one’s shoulder.

And then, suddenly, the title makes sense. The man Fletcher embodies is not Jay Gatsby but his original: James Gatz. In other words, not the sophisticated, mysterious “Oxford man” that others perceive, but the former army Major, the college dropout, the ex-janitor, the man who passed through Trinity College, Oxford for a matter of weeks. In his charmless, joyless demeanour, one senses the strain, the effort and the monotony behind the façade of his existence as Gatsby.

This disruption of Fitzgerald’s novel stems from ERS’s chosen form, that is, to (dis)honour the novel in its entirety. What quickly becomes apparent is how ill-fitted it is for the stage. It remains a novel and, as such, its whole mode runs counter to the oldest rule of theatre: show don’t tell. Here ERS embrace the faltering process of translation, harnessing the jagged edges that result such that nothing quite meets the demands of the text. Characters that are sketched so concisely and so memorably on the page, with a neat flick of Fitzgerald’s pen, become odd creatures onstage. Their distinguishing features are embodied in one-dimensional facial gurns and physical tics. How, for example, does one stage throwaway remarks such as this: “A tiny gust of powder rose from her bosom.”Rather than the closed system that we usually encounter onstage – whereby guns in the first act go off in the third – we get something more sprawling and unravelled, something that needs chasing. The whole thing feels ungainly. The period charm disappears, though there remains – in the very awkwardness with which the text is handled, such that characters often seem at a loss, racking their brains as the narration steamrolls over them – a disjointed elegance.

Occasionally, ERS push too far and too hard, forcing a crumple out of the collision. For a moment towards the end of Part 1, they seem to have become cynical, stepping outside of the task to mock its crudeness. When a plastic fish and a goggle-eyed thermos (a hangover from a previous work, I believe) emerges for a tea-making ritual, one feels that they have drifted towards spoof and sabotage.

However, by retaining its status as novel and reveling in the clash of forms, ERS are able to reveal a great deal about entertainment. In the impossibility of an unwieldy square peg fitting a tidy round hole, we see both peg and hole, novel and stage, for what they really are. We see their relative merits and failings. One realizes the effort that lies beneath entertainment, the laborious endurance of reading as an activity. Interestingly, one also gets far more of a sense of the writer than usual; Fitzgerald’s phrases seem sculpted subclauses, each word very deliberately plucked from the shelves of his vocabulary.

As it winds down, almost refusing to find the neat, climactic flourish that we expect of theatre – the shot of All My Sons, the marriages of Shakespeare’s comedies – it rolls on and extends, reeling out postscripts for characters, a melancholy mist descends. One longs as much to be released as one does for it to continue onwards, as if there is simultaneously too much already told and yet so much more to tell.

Gatz, looking back, is an astonishing piece of work with a piercing clarity about both its subject and its form. It deserves to affect the practice of its contemporaries and go down in the history books as something seminal. Much like Gatsby himself.

Photograph: Chris Beirens

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