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Review: Gatz, New York's Public Theatre
In a dead-end office somewhere in the late eighties, non-descript office personnel type non-descript memos on pleasingly clunky electric typewriters. In the background, these memos are seemingly arbitrarily filed by other clunky and non-descript members of staff, as a man sits down at his desk, tries – and fails - to boot up his computer, and pulls out a copy of The Great Gatsby. And so we begin. The expression ‘long story short’ is a cute and easily referenced explication on the way we tell stories: abbreviating even the code for abbreviation. Gatz, on the other hand, leaves nothing out.
At his desk, Scott Shepherd begins to read: badly, gratingly, with a bland American voice that has little to recommend it. After about an hour – at least time to fill two or three decades in the average biopic – he begins to enjoy himself: a falsetto for Daisy Buchanan, a thunderous bass for Tom. And then, in the background, these paper-pushers and desk jockeys begin to take on the characters. A young woman with a golf magazine is Jordan, despite being neither jaunty-chinned nor yellow haired; a balding man with more than a passing reference to John Lithgow is, suddenly, Jay Gatz. This is at once a staged reading, and a skillful dramatization of a well-loved text. Not one of the characters ‘looks’, nor even sounds, particularly right: Shepherd’s Carraway is freckly and anaemic; cruelly aristocratic hunk Tom is borne of bullying janitorial hulk. Actually, this is one of Gatz’s cleverest explications: the improvisatory quality of reading. Our cast is not chosen according to type, nor even a particular ‘feel’, but pressed into service out of the available office staff. This is not like a film.
Not one of Fitzgerald’s 47000 words is spared onstage in a production that lasts almost seven hours: there can be no skimming of florid description, or page-flicking through to the bit where someone breaks someone else’s nose. The pace is set, and, short of leaving halfway through, there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. At times, one fidgets and hums through the pages of imagery; at times, one is rapt, and perches on the edge of the seat (and gets tapped on the shoulder by an elderly Mittel-European woman whose view is being obscured). Fitzgerald’s prose is given space to shine, in this unconventional, ‘nowhere’ space, somewhere just outside of real life. Descending into New York’s Public Theatre feels a little like plunging into the belly of the city, with internal plumbing and rattling subway trains humming in the background of the set. It feels very right for a text that is so caught up with the ‘New Yorkness’ of the city – perhaps even more real than the city aboveground, to which one returns, pink-eyed and blinking.
A six hundred word review can’t really hope to do justice to a production of such length, strength and expanse. Long story short, then. The show is set to come to the Noel Coward theatre in London later this year: though such geographical pertinence will inevitably be lacking, I have every belief that this could be the best thing you see all year.