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Making America Great Gatsby again

Perth Festival review: Elevator Repair Service, Gatz ⋅
Octagon Theatre, March 1 ⋅
Review by David Zampatti ⋅

It’s impossible to claim that Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s heroic word-for-word performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is a reaction to the state of America under its current president (after all, the project was conceived under Clinton and first performed under Bush II).

But I doubt if anyone who experienced this demanding, adventurous, beautiful, funny, desperately sad tour de force of theatrical daring and skill during the dying days of this year’s Perth Festival would have failed to feel the sense and personality of Trump reverberating uncannily through it.

ERS performs The Great Gatsby in its entirety, and without a single additional word of dialogue. For the record, the performance of those roughly 50,000 words takes 360 minutes (there are three intervals, one long enough for a meal). According to one ready reckoner, Fitzgerald’s novella (he insisted it was a novel for commercial reasons, complaining that novellas didn’t sell) takes a minute under three hours for the average reader to complete.

There’s little needs saying about the story – it’s a known commodity: the mysterious, obsessed tycoon and the woman he (foolishly but inevitably) loves to his death, and the damage they do, as reported by a decent, ordinary man who fell into their web, ensnared by their charm and his timidity.

It’s hard to believe that performing a novel word for word could work so perfectly on stage, but Gatsby is no typical novel. As Gertrude Stein wrote admiringly to Fitzgerald: “You write naturally in sentences.” T.S. Eliot, for whom compliments did not come easy, was also a fan. He read Gatsby three times, repaying, I think, a compliment Fitzgerald had paid him through the novel’s tone and sensibility – Gatsby may be the great American novel, but it is also its Waste Land.

That natural economy of Fitzgerald’s phrase and structure makes the transition to the spoken word and the stage easy. Whether it’s in the long narrations that Nick Carraway (Scott Shepherd) delivers, or in the dialogue between the book’s characters – Gatsby (Jim Fletcher), Daisy (Annie McNamara) and Tom (Pete Simpson), Jordan (April Matthis), George (Frank Boyd) and Myrtle (Laurena Allan) – Fitzgerald’s language is vivid, easy to grasp and imbued with life.

Let me explain: the world of the play is a humdrum office some time in the late 1980s, judging by the computers and remnant typewriters. One office worker (Shepherd) fills the tedious hours reading The Great Gatsby aloud. Others go about the desultory business of the modern administrative workplace until, unobtrusively at first, they assume the personages of Fitzgerald’s East and West Egg on Long Island and hurtle down to the book’s scandal and its tragedy.

Three men in office attire lean against a desk.
In the office: Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, Pete Simpson as Tom Buchanan and Jim Fletcher as Jay Gatsby. Photo Toni Wilkinson.

Once the characters are established and the action mounts in the first “section”, it’s an exhilarating ride, with the atmospherics created by Fitzgerald – and amplified and enriched by director John Collins – anticipating much of the best of American literature, cinema and theatre.

When it moves to the Gatsby mansion parties and Jay and Daisy’s reunion, the production becomes a comedy of New York manners worthy of Damon Runyon and Dorothy Parker. As the screws tighten in the Plaza Suite scene – where Gatsby and Tom Buchanan battle for possession of Daisy – there’s a Tennessee Williams shift in mood. And later, when Myrtle Wilson goes under the wheels of Gatsby’s automobile and their battle turns fatal, Gatz reads like James M. Cain.

Finally, we are left with Nick looking out over Long Island Sound at the dark water and the green light, and the voice – its admonition and its premonition – belongs to Fitzgerald alone.

Shepherd is astounding as Nick Carraway. Apart from the enormous feat of remembering almost an entire book (he pretends to be reading it, but that ain’t so) and holding the stage for six hours, his habitation of the character of Nick is complete. You don’t doubt him for a second.

Nor do you doubt the other characters. Fletcher’s Gatsby is imposing, humorous and threatening (he’d be an extraordinary Kerry Packer); McNamara makes Daisy not an alabaster beauty but a woman a man might ache for; and Simpson’s Tom Buchanan is manspread and dangerous. Even the sound designer, Ben Williams, who steps out from his cleverly camouflaged sound desk to play minor characters, is perfect.

Daisy sits by a window, flooded with light from behind.
Annie McNamara’s Daisy Buchanan is a woman a man might ache for. Photo Toni Wilkinson.

But it is the contemporary parallels – Gatsby/Tom Buchanan as precursors to Trump, the inheritance man and cagey outsider; Gatsby’s bootlegger Wolfsheim and Trump’s Russian oligarchs; the racism and the womanising – that make Gatz such a fascinatingly relevant work.

For Gatsby, it was not enough that Daisy loved him; he needed her to have always loved him. It’s his expectation of, and demand for, complete loyalty and possession that destroy him. Perhaps it will destroy this president, too.

The worst thing about them all – the Gatsbys, the Buchanans, the Trumps – is that, as Fitzgerald says, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”.

And the worst mess they have made – the one they are still making now, from Wall Street to the Oval Office, from sea to shining sea – is the retreat from the promise of the American future: the green light that Gatsby believed in but was too greedy to attain. And so “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.

POSTSCRIPT

Two years ago, we marvelled at The Gabriels – another eight-hour American epic, set, coincidentally, in the year leading up to the election of Donald Trump. It remains the best experience I’ve had at the theatre. I would gladly see both plays – The Gabriels followed by Gatz – back to back over 16 hours.

I thank Perth Festival’s departing director, Wendy Martin, for bringing them both here, and congratulate her on a wonderful four years of theatre programming. I’ll have more to say about it later.

Picture Top:  (left to right) Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, Jim Fletcher as Jay Gatsby, April Matthis as Jordan Baker, Annie McNamara as Daisy Buchanan and  Pete Simpson as Tom Buchanan. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

 

 

 

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