Stage versions of literary sources are a long established theatrical tradition, from hit musicals made of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (now respectively the longest running musicals in West End and Broadway history) to this year’s recent adaptations of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (at the Young Vic) and Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (at the Barbican). But Gatz, a stage version of F Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby that has come to London in a production by the New York company Elevator Repair Service, is something else - it doesn’t adapt so much as simply read the novel aloud in its spellbinding entirety.
Kate Scelsa (Lucille), Lucy Taylor (Daisy), Mike Iveson (Ewing) and Scott Shepherd (Nick) in Gatz at the Noel Coward Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
It’s a bit like a theatrical talking book come to life, but it is also a bold, brilliant theatricalisation that doesn’t add the distorting voice of an adaptor. Instead, it uses every single word of Fitzgerald’s novel to tell his story again in vivid, captivating theatrical terms and though it isn’t a musical, it instead finds the music in the cadences and poetry of those words. The result is riveting in its unshowy stillness and unaffectedness.
Some of that lack of affectation is, of course, itself an effect but the technique has an absorbing integrity that draws you into the heart of the story, as an office worker, failing to get his computer workstation started, pours over a battered copy of The Great Gatsby. As he starts to read it aloud in the voice of its narrator Nick Carraway, he finds he cannot stop. His co-workers become gradually conscripted into playing other characters that populate the story.
The result inevitably takes its time - the show runs for over six hours, plus intervals that stretch it to over eight, so it’s quite a commitment in terms of time. But reading a book - or having one read to you - has never been this effortless, at least for the audience, who surrender readily to such gorgeous storytelling. The actors, inevitably, have to work a bit harder, not least Scott Shepherd as the narrator. Although he is ‘on book’ (in every sense) for much of the evening, he flies free of its pages regularly, and certainly for the final hour or so. Shepherd brings a sweet affability and vulnerability to the stage that connects him both to the story he is telling and his own role as both participant in it as well as conduit of it.
He is joined by a superb ensemble that also includes an imposing Jim Fletcher as Gatz, the pink-suited man of mystery who has reinvented himself as the Great Gatsby. The entire cast, though, perform as big a transformation on themselves to enter the lives of the characters totally. Director John Collins brilliantly marshals sound by Ben Williams and lighting by Mark Barton to subtly maintain a constantly shifting balance between being inside the story and simply telling it as outside observers. In the process, we too become, as we do when we read, utterly absorbed in its creation of another world and era.
You wouldn’t want to see every book handled in this way onstage - we’d be there for several days if it was done for War and Peace - but this exceptional treatment is as unique as it is daring.