A small disclaimer: the performance I’m writing about was technically a preview, though Elevator Repair Service have in fact been performing this show since 2004. This also seems a slightly superfluous disclosure considering that I don’t expect what follows to be a “proper” review in any conventional sense. If either of those two statements displease you, probably best to stop reading now …
As I probably don’t need to tell you, the headline-grabbing aspect of Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, currently visiting the West End as part of LIFT 2012, is its length. A performance in which every last word of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is read aloud, this sort of anti-adaptation is eight hours long. Eight hours.
Except that’s already a slight lie. Intervals factored in – including a fairly generous dinner break – this is actually more like six hours of stage time in total. And in fact, astoundingly, the length is probably one of the less extraordinary things about Gatz. People arrive prepped for an act of endurance; the group next to me seemed to have packed an entire picnic and, to my slight envy, a flask of tea. Twitter reveals more of the same, some theatregoers even arming themselves with pillows. But, with the minimal aid of caffeine top-ups, this is far less of a marathon than it appears. More of a pleasurable and mildly tiring fun run, perhaps.
The concept is brilliantly simple. A bored office worker, the staggeringly excellent Scott Shepherd (more on him later), arriving at work to find his computer on the blink, stumbles across a copy of The Great Gatsby on his desk. He begins to read, and continues to do so for the following eight (minus intervals) hours. I say read, but in a mind-boggling feat of memory, Shepherd knows the whole thing off by heart, *spoiler alert* as he stunningly proves during the final 45-minute sequence delivered entirely without the prop of the book. *end spoiler alert* Although I’d happily be lulled by Shepherd’s strangely hypnotic voice alone, he is also joined one by one by other figures in the office, who gradually take on roles within the novel.
And that, essentially, is it. Except it’s also so much more. Elevator Repair Service’s staging seems like a good place to start. The entire thing takes place in a typically stale and soulless office, naturalistically rendered down to each last biro. My immediate assumption, though this isn’t confirmed by any period-specific references, is that we’re in the late eighties or early nineties, based mainly on the appearance of Shepherd’s faulty computer. I can’t help wondering if this vague, recent-ish setting has a calculated resonance with Fitzgerald’s novel; though we’re far from the steel and glass of Wall Street, the implied era is that of the sort of greed and excess so grotesquely satirised by Caryl Churchill in Serious Money, a world not dissimilar from the pre-Crash extravagance displayed at Gatsby’s parties. The expensive calm before the storm.
Beyond the usual office paraphernalia, the only thing out of the ordinary in Louisa Thompson’s set is an onstage sound deck, which later becomes key to the subtle evocation of the world of Fitzgerald’s novel. Visually, this is the antithesis of Baz Luhrman’s forthcoming film, the trailer for which is all glitter and no grit. In the decidedly drab surroundings of Elevator Repair Service’s production, the responsibility for the glitter lays entirely with the text, which dazzles all by itself. I suspect that I was in the majority among the audience in having already read the novel, albeit several years ago, but even for those familiar with the book this is something of a journey of discovery.
The beauty of this unconventional method of staging a novel is that it becomes so much more about the literary work at its centre than any traditional adaptation ever is. Fitzgerald’s prose is both protagonist and creator; everything is born from the words. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but for such a celebrated classic The Great Gatsby has a remarkably slight plot. Condensed right down, it is essentially the classic spiky love triangle (or love square, perhaps, if we’re including Myrtle). Illicit romance, the return of an old flame, betrayal and jealousy – nothing ground-breaking. What’s more, if you’re purely focusing on events, Nick barely features, lingering perpetually on the sidelines.
All of which is exactly why Gatz works so brilliantly. There is of course so much more to Fitzgerald’s novel than a hackneyed love story and so much more to its narrator, who is revealed in the prose as a central character in his own right. In a normal adaptation much of this is lost, whereas Elevator Repair Service have not only preserved this but actually enhanced it. As Jay McInerney pointed out recently in the Observer, “Fitzgerald’s prose somehow elevates a lurid and underdeveloped narrative to the level of myth”. In reinventing the act of reading on stage, I would go as far as to suggest that Gatz elevates this (no pun intended) a level further.
The literary junkie’s ultimate high, the only way to really, accurately describe Gatz is as reading intensified. It’s that fevered devouring of a novel without all the cheating, not allowing you to skim through sections that seem unnecessary to the story, and in the process revealing those bits as absolutely necessary. Such a treatment obviously wouldn’t work for every book, but for The Great Gatsby it’s perfect, polishing every last buried gem in Fitzgerald’s language and lending his prose a heightened poetry through Shepherd’s mesmerising tones.
We also glimpse before our eyes that slipping away of the real world as the world of the book takes its grip. Piece by piece the office morphs into the glamorous parties of the twenties; hedonism is casually evoked by a fistful of papers tossed in the air, while the sounds of jazz gradually infect the stage. I was beguiled by the way in which reality and fiction are ever fluid, meshing with one another and then suddenly jarring, until by the end, *spoiler claxon* as Shepherd lays down his book, it is no longer clear which is which. In the way that only a great novel can, Fitzgerald’s world has engulfed all around it.
And as I mentioned already, we are treated to many little discoveries along the way. It may have simply been that at the age of sixteen, when I first read the novel, I was spectacularly unobservant, but this presentation of the text revealed to me several new facets of Fitzgerald’s tale. This time around, perhaps influenced by the current state of the world, the novel’s attitude to capitalism seems even more scathing. For many of the characters, love and money are almost synonymous – the attraction of Daisy’s voice is that it rings with wealth. Elevator Repair Service’s concept underlines this obsession by placing it within the context of a space where making money is the main objective, generating only monotonous drudgery. Against this dull office setting, the American Dream is just that – dreamlike, insubstantial, and incompatible with the drabness of reality.
With a jolted remembrance of Jean Baudrillard’s “hyperreal”, it suddenly seemed to me while watching that even in 1925 The Great Gatsby was oddly anticipating postmodernism, whispering of the substitution of the real with signs of the real. Nick describes how his mysterious friend experiences “the unreality of reality”; to Daisy, Gatsby – already concealed behind a false identity – resembles an advertisement; the all-seeing, bespectacled eyes of the same advertisement become an oddly sinister capitalist substitute for God; the treasured photograph of Gatsby’s lavish mansion is more real to his father than the house itself. The addition of another few layers of simulacra in the form of performance only serves to enhance this.
Which brings me back to the performance itself. Much of what I’ve written so far makes it sound as though Gatz is purely concerned with literature, but Elevator Repair Service also incisively interrogate the workings of theatre. The conventions of representation get a comical prod, as what we are offered visually often directly contradicts with what we are being told. Jim Fletcher is a particularly unlikely Gatsby in his mismatched pink suit, and there is a beautiful moment when Shepherd reads the line about girls rubbing champagne in his hair and pauses to look incredulously at the balding figure opposite him.
There is much more to Gatz than can be contained in one blog post without stretching to ridiculous lengths, but Shepherd deserves a special mention before I reluctantly leave the experience behind me. His performance would be extraordinary for the memorising of the text alone, but this is much, much more than an impressive act of recall. It’s difficult for me to pin down quite why he makes such a compelling presence, but I think the closest I can get to articulating it is that he lives the book. When he reads those final, gorgeous sentences, we don’t quite want to leave him and the story he has told behind.
Tipped out onto the pavement after several hours in the novel’s company, I felt dazed and dazzled, slowly emerging from the deep submersion of Elevator Repair Service’s storytelling, blinking against the glare of the outside world. As I finally finish writing about it almost three weeks later, it still hasn’t fully relinquished its grip on me. And that pretty much says it all.