Open for 23 performances and with rave reviews gushing over its sophistication, Gatz is the latest ‘must-book’ for the flush London theatre-goer. It is not a conventional play, being an 8-hour word for word reading of the Great Gatsby, set on the stage of the Noel Coward theatre, and performed by 13 actors from the ERS theatre group of New York. Yes, 8 hours; 3 intervals.
‘But you’ve studied American Literature, you must know this?’ - so said my mother as we sat down. I explained that ‘study’ was pushing it for a term of English Literature A Level in which I read the set texts I was told to, and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic had not come up. So I didn’t sit down to Gatz aware of the writing or the story, unlike the majority of people in that night. If you find yourself in my position, I’m afraid I can’t recommend it.
Hours pass slowly as the narrative crawls by. The pleasure of a book is that you can put it down, and the pleasure of theatre is watching people acting. Here you have a man reading a story out and fairly soon a random set of fellow office workers playing roles for people they are nothing like. To begin with the characters pop in out of the recital, but by act three they are standing about waiting for the adjectives for their behaviour to be read out. So you can’t put the book down or watch anyone acting. Not a happy medium; unless you think of mass as entertainment.
Newspaper reviewers have glowingly commented that Gatz showcases F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose, but for me it’s more a weakness than a strength. Where the stale narration (‘he said’, ‘she said’) would so obviously be cut in a conventional adaptation, here it is not; conversely there are moments when the actors are being highly distracting on stage, causing irritation that you cannot focus. With the huge visual limitations of the dull office and the unadapted costumes, it’s hard to conjure the scenes in the story without listening accurately to the narration.
Traditonally you’d name drop some actors at this point, but I’m afraid there’s little to say. The narrator deserves praise for reading out the novel without much of a break; although his intonation and tone make concentrating tedious. The rest, well; with no acting in a conventional sense I found none made much impression. I also didn’t understand why such underwhelming acting was chosen for the role of Gatsby, for whom presumably we are supposed to care for.
Seats remained filled more than I expected as the hours passed. I suppose at £75 a throw it’s a bitter pill to swallow to conclude your time could be better spent. I must be honest in saying that after the end of act three and over six hours in, I could take no more. I was now watching people shuffle around the stage but focusing on the behaviour of the breathy man and fat sweet-sucking woman behind me, listening to the story had become a stress-inducing chore and that isn’t what either reading or going to the theatre should be about.
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By Piero McCarthy
8th June - 15th July 2012
Noel Coward Theatre, London, WC2.