A cooler blend of culture

‘Gatz’ is as good as ‘The Great Gatsby’ gets

Eight hours. An epic duration. That’s how long the Perth Festival production of Gatz went for. Sure, it included three intervals but even the most ardent theatre-goer would consider this gig a marathon one.

Its length aside, Gatz is a most unique stage production; an interpretation of the beloved literary classic, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, presented by American artistic director John Collins, and theatre company Elevator Repair Service.

Set in a drab modern office (well, circa 1980s), the entire novel is performed word by word, as the delicate prose is expertly constructed with rhythmic comic timing of everyday folk transcending into the egos of characters in the book.

Seemingly, you would think that a stage play could not hold the attention of its audience for a torturous eight hours, but we were surprised to find the time pass more quickly than in actuality.

It’s intriguing and powerful theatre that can, in fact, hold an audience for eight hours, which is (perhaps not-so-ironically) the same length of a typical day at the office.

The backstory to the development of Gatz is as epic as its duration, with the first incarnation dating back to 1999 and morphing into the full reading of the novel, after red tape warfare won over the rights to perform the show in New York. The production has since been hosted by tens of cities around the world.

Seemingly, you would think that a stage play could not hold the attention of its audience for a torturous eight hours, but we were surprised to find the time pass more quickly than in actuality, as the intervals one at 1.5 hours long kept us curious as to what new innovation would be imagined after each break in performance.

With a tireless cast that commits fully with dynamic performances in turn, our encounter with rediscovering or being introduced to The Great Gatsby is rewarded by our persistence to take the risk to commit to its demanding real-time narrative.

The richness of the figurative language and the intrigue of a parallel experience to the novel preserves the integrity of Fitzgerald. The reinvention is entertaining through the surprising playful sense of humour coupled with rigourous commitment to psychological complex performances that layer the real upon the surreal in a sort of ‘contemporary parallelism’.

In the novel, Gatsby’s reinvention of himself elevates mystery and his unreliable history perplexes the other characters. Protagonist Jay Gatsby changed his family name from Gatz, which gives the play its title. The novel, while set in 1925 New York, resonates through the form of office workers who transform into the main characters while the text is read aloud.

Hard-working lead actor, Scott Shepherd, in the role of narrator Nick Carraway, does an astonishing job holding court, while the stage management of typical office lighting and ambient noise was cleverly absorbed into one seamless direction. Heck, even the audio engineer was on stage for the entirety of the play, doubling up as a character here, a character there.

Having seen many film versions of this story, I was intrigued to see how memorable scenes would play out on stage for this long and in a contemporary setting. If I were to suggest a change, it would be to add more unpredictability in the interactions of the office workers and a little more innovation with multimedia stage design, like maybe a larger-than-life billboard casing watchfully on the wall of the office, which perhaps doubles as a video screen to project heightened tense action while the narrator reads immobilised. There are inventive moments, but when a character reads for that many hours, more break from the pattern and routine in the story telling is needed.

While there isn’t the visceral opulence of 1920s art deco sets, pearls, and diamond chandeliers, there is experimentation and ingenuity with bridging the world of the novel and the world of the strange little office, into a mysterious encounter of colliding real time and space like nothing you’ve seen before. The book was so lyrical – and every word meaningful – that Gatz not only illuminates the richness of the writing style but successfully entices the impossible: that is, to inspire a non-theatrical text to the stage. You would presume that such a challenge would tire the audience, but with this curious reincarnation, as with the novel, Gatz never gets old.

★★★★

Annette McCubbin

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