Tuesday 19 May 2009

On Gatz

The advice given by his father to Nick Carraway, the narrator of 'The Great Gatsby', is that "Whenever you feel like criticizing someone, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."  He might have added that when confronted with the prospect of seven and half hours in the theatre you shouldn't automatically assume it will be excruciating.  'Gatz', by New York theatre company Elevator Repair Service (performing at the Sydney Opera House on weekends until the end of May), which is something between a reading and a dramatization of every word of 'The Great Gatsby' is anything but.

The production is set in an office that reminds us what offices used to look like, all beige computers and mismatched furniture, but never reveals what people there actually do.  The fully realised set, with windows into external corridors will become the site for Gatsby's desperate bacchanals, a seedy uptown apartment and the poolside where all ends too soon.  The conceit of this tragic masterpiece breaking out from the blank filing cabinet of this shabby work-place is oddly appropriate, Fitzgerald dealt with what can fall into the gulf between American pasts and the futures not about the Jazz Age on Long Island.

Nick is played by the crumpled and engaging Scott Shepherd, and his reading gradually moves from being a private contemplation to a point where his colleagues assume roles of the novel's characters.  The transition is much needed, the first half hour or so feel like a reading with the promise of a play breaking out, that said the beginning of the novel is characterized by the absence of the eponymous protagonist and the sense of anticipation and relief when he arrives is similar.

What develops is a sensitive reading of the book that uses the actors to serve as counterpoint to the text.  Sometimes that falls too heavily on the side of ironic juxtaposition, talking about Gatsby's hair when he's played by a bald actor isn't exactly clever, but more often it adds a fleshy roundedness to characters who have become so familiar over the years.  Thus Jordan is made sporty and sparky by Susie Sokol and Myrtle is injected with the life that she needs to make her death so jarring, by Laurena Allan.  And throughout the novel is the thing, more than anything else the timing and direction bring out the beautiful rhythmic lyricism of Fitzgerald's prose, making the work of any future dramatic adpator perilous.

The moment of tragic apotheosis in the book is the hot summer night in the Plaza Hotel, where Gatsby's romantic utopia is smashed against the rocks, as we realise that whatever life he has constructed for himself it is unable to overcome the realities of an American aristocracy happy to compromise for its position.  Of course the real tragedy happens in the blur after that scene, cars, guns and flesh collide, but the damage has been dome already.

This passage is the most eloquent and compellingly staged, just as it ought to be.  Gatsby in his pink rag of a suit is lit like an interrogatee, Tom straddles a chair wide legged the dominant predator in silhouette whilst Daisy is haloed in the yellow glow of light from the office window.
The only face we see consistently is Gatsby's, and it is like he is being taken apart piece by piece, and the occasional and constant flicker of uncertainty consumes him.  It says much for direction and playing that a tiring audience can be held in breathless empathy this many hours in.
So much of the effect of 'The Great Gatsby' comes from the very form of its tragedy, so tightly conceived and inevitable is the mechanic of Gatsby's demise that the artifice of Gatz feels quite fitting.  Nick's receptive fallible narration is chorussed by his colleagues, who are drawn into something archetypal and ritualistic, just as he and Gatsby are.  'Gatz' does something remarkable, it takes a book made mythic through familiarity and reminds us of the human truths within it.  It reminds us that grand narratives of American life are only part of the story and that the way that lives, fortunes and dreams are as frail and brittle as flesh.  It's a production that everyone who can should see.

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