Gatz, Noel Coward Theatre

William Kherbek reviews the eight-hour reenactment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best known novel

GATZ, Jim Fletcher © Paula Court
Jim Fletcher © Paula Court
For certain young literary types, The Great Gatsby is something like a sacred text. There’s something in the deeply romantic, almost overripe language that exerts a kind of mesmeric thrall that sustains any embarrassment felt in trying to describe. Sailing just due east of Pseud’s Corner, I will confess to having walked around with a copy in my back pocket for most of my second year of university. No doubt Scott Shepherd was such young man with a copy of Gatsby always near to hand. The extraordinary adaptation of the book, Gatz, an eight-hour-long, uncut reading of Gatsby by his Elevator Repair Service theatre company is a gutsy, imperfect, beautiful experience.For all its strongly visual qualities, there is something about The Great Gatsby that seems to resist adaptation to film. Even the 1974 Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, Francis Ford Coppola, and Sam Waterston version, which contains great performances by each of the actors named above somehow didn’t quite capture the essence of what makes the book so consuming. Baz Luhrmann is scheduled to have a go at Fitzgerald’s bleak American fable this year with Leonardo Di Caprio and Cary Mulligan in the starring roles. It’s possible that Luhrmann’s sensibility will finally capture Gatsby’s strange alchemy, but, watching Gatz I began to think that the approach taken by the Elevator Repair Service may be the only real way to bring Gatsby to life. That is, by avoiding the temptation to take it off the page.The Great Gatsby is for all its self-evident, effervescent beauties, a very strange book. To mention just one curious feature of the book, Fitzgerald’s otherworldly prose sensibility never seemed to extend to his ability to give names to characters. Thus, the book is populated by people with names like “Dr. Webster Civet”, and, most unfortunately, “Blackbuck”. Klipspringer, Gatsby’s piano playing boarder, has a memorable name, and it’s suitably gonzo for his character, but such formulations sometimes place the poignancy of the underlying narrative at risk.  This risk is, of course, part of the book’s greatness and it is sadly almost impossible to film. Gatz manages to radically reimagine the book and yet remain totally faithful to Fitzgerald’s writing. The weirdness, true believers, is therefore fully, beautifully conserved.

“The Great Gatsby is for all its self-evident, effervescent beauties, a very strange book”

As for the nuts and bolts, the premise of the production is that in the course of a working day, the man who will become Nick Carraway, played by Shepherd, discovers a copy of The Great Gatsby in his office rolodex, and, when he can’t get his computer working, he begins to read, becoming increasingly fascinated, until the world of his office is transformed into the world inside the text. Granted, a bit unlikely, even for committed students of Derrida, but then so is buying a mansion to live near someone you’ve been secretly in love with for five years.At times the exigencies of theatrical interpretation become too much to resist, as in the scene where Tom introduces Nick to his mistress at a raucous party in an apartment in New York. The shouts and jazz and clatter at times drown the text, and while it’s true to the spirit, the straining for the language it necessitates is distracting. But over the course of eight hours, these moments were the exception.There’s an almost Brechtian quality to the acting, resisting any excess of naturalism, and feeding the strange, integrative artificiality of the event. Shepherd as Nick has the sly, anodyne qualities critical to make the character of Nick work. Jim Fletcher makes a suitably incongruous Gatsby, in some ways highlighting the lack of interiority of the character, and possibly achieving what various actors have tried through the years: to convey Gatsby’s charisma as well as his fundamental emptiness.

Gatz runs at the Noel Coward Theatre in London until 15 July