The eight-hour Great Gatsby

 
Promotional image for Gatz The show was first performed in 2005

Thirteen years ago an experimental theatre company in Manhattan called Elevator Repair Service (ERS) decided to make a stage version of F Scott Fitzgerald's classic American state-of-the nation novel The Great Gatsby (1925). The initial plan was a traditional run-time of two-and-a-half hours, max, including a drinks break.

But then they found the lyricism and rhythm of Fitzgerald's writing made hacking into the text difficult. Even taking out a "he said" they discovered, was like removing a wooden block in a game of Jenga: it made the whole structure feel a little shakier.

That was difficulty number one. Difficulty number two was getting the theatrical rights to the text, which they were consistently refused. At this point most companies would walk away, life being too short and all that.

But ERS is not like most companies, they are like Gatsby himself: stubborn and odd and romantic. And once they set their minds on something - just like Gatsby - they will not relent.

While negotiations with the rights holders spluttered along, the creative team took a radical decision. They would not cut Fitzgerald's prose, not a single word of it. They committed to present - in essence - an illustrated book reading.

The result is an eight-and-a-quarter-hour production (including just under two hours of breaks) that ingeniously weaves the petty politics and inescapable hierarchies of modern office life into Fitzgerald's story of American petty politics and inescapable hierarchies.

Key characters

  • Nick Carraway: Narrator, Gatsby's next-door neighbour in West Egg, bond salesman
  • Jay Gatsby: Mysterious millionaire obsessed with the girl he fell in love with during WWI
  • Daisy Buchanan: Shallow cousin of Nick
  • Tom Buchanan: Unfaithful husband
  • Jordan Baker: Pro golfer, friend of Daisy
  • Myrtle Wilson: Tom's ill-fated mistress
  • George Wilson: Mechanic husband of Myrtle

I know that a day-long theatre session sounds like a fairly hideous concept, but actually it's fine. Time does not hang heavy. It's a good story, well told and expertly produced.

There are also times when the text is over-powered by the on-stage events and effects. But that is a small price to pay for those moments when this bold approach to theatre-making brings Fitzgerald's prose powerfully alive.

When the softly spoken Scott Shepherd (who puts in a mighty shift as the book's narrator Nick Carraway) says of Gatsby that he "paid a high price for living too long with a single dream" it struck a note as poignant as any I have ever heard in the theatre.

Many guises of Gatsby

  • Film: Alan Ladd (1949), Robert Redford (1974) and Toby Stephens (2000, above with Mira Sorvino) among those to take the title role
  • Stage: Experimental play Gatz, New York (2010)
  • Opera: The Great Gatsby, New York (1999)
  • Novel: Daisy Buchanan's Daughter (2011)
  • Gaming: The Great Gatsby (2010)

OK, it's a famous line, but hearing it spoken after nigh-on eight hours when your mind and body is tiring, means you not only hear the words, you feel them.

I don't know what price ERS has paid for living so long with its single dream to bring The Great Gatsby to the stage, but I hope it was worth it, because, for me, they've bought the man back to life at a time when his story resonates in a way that perhaps it hasn't done since 1925.

Gatz is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 15 July.

 
Will Gompertz, Arts editor Article written by Will Gompertz Will Gompertz Arts editor

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