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The Great Gatsby – every word of it – is an unlikely theatrical success story. Jodie McLeod reports.*

Jim Fletcher as mystery man Jay Gatsby
Jim Fletcher as mystery man Jay Gatsby

SEVEN hours and 35 minutes is how long audiences will spend in the theatre when New York theatre company Elevator Repair Service presents Gatz in Sydney. The show, a verbatim performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, is about five times longer than the average theatre production.

But Gatz‘s director, John Collins, says length should not be off-putting. “There’s a special excitement and a sense of accomplishment that the audience feels when they leave the theatre and they’ve just heard an entire novel in one sitting,” he says.

Collins, who is also the company’s artistic director, originally wanted to trim the novel when he first began working on a stage adaptation in 1999 but quickly decided editing it was a no-no.

“The narrator’s thoughts are such a huge part of what makes this a great novel. And so that became the project: how would you stage a novel without rewriting or cutting it?”

The result is Gatz, a “re-reading” of the book that is split into four acts, with two tea breaks and a dinner interval; or, for the faint-hearted, two parts over two evenings.

Regardless of how inured one’s bottom is to sitting, will theatregoers be able to digest Fitzgerald’s lyrical and often dense prose without the safety net of a hard copy to mull over? Collins believes so.

“As an audience member, you become very attuned to a different rhythm,” he says. “You find you’re actually able to listen to that prose and attach and project its meaning onto these things you’re seeing [on stage], which are sometimes extremely active and theatrical and other times are very still and patient and beautiful.”

text text text

Gatz is not a true-to-life representation of the events in the story; instead, it is closer to a tribute to a first reading of the novel. Set in a grungy modern-day office building, the show begins when one bored worker picks up a copy of the book and starts to read it aloud. The reader, played by Scott Shepherd, delivers the first few chapters while the other employees listen on. Gradually, they become immersed in the story and take on dialogue from the various characters, while Shepherd continues to read the part of the narrator, a man named Nick Carraway. The plot follows the exuberant lifestyle of Carraway’s rich friends, at the centre of which is a botched love affair between the book’s namesake, mystery man Jay Gatsby, played by Jim Fletcher, and Daisy Buchanan, played by Australian actress Lucy Taylor.

While there are no flappers, big jazz bands or fancy cars on stage (Collins purposefully left these details out to allow room for what was more truthful about the novel, “which was the narrator’s voice”), the ambience of the roaring ’20s still shines through. The office workers occasionally discard their modern-day get-up for flashier period costumes (Gatsby makes an appearance in his infamous “gorgeous pink rag of a suit”) while sound designer Ben Williams recreates the party sounds of Jazz Age New York from his desk on stage.

Shepherd holds on to the book throughout most of the performance to retain the sense of reading the novel for the first time, though the actor could easily perform without it. Known for his freakish talent for memorising texts (he once performed a version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which he played all the characters), Shepherd knows every word of the book by heart, including every “he said” and “she said”.

“Shepherd is the opposite to other actors,” Collins says. “He rehearses without the script, then performs with it.”

Both actor and director have developed an almost parental protectiveness of The Great Gatsby, having read it countless times. When asked how he feels about Baz Luhrmann securing the rights to create a film version in 2010, Collins admits having reservations.

“I’m very curious about that,” he says. “I hope he does a better job than they did in the ’70s. Having been through this experience, it’s hard to imagine that a condensed version could stand up to the novel itself. Part of the point of making a piece this way is that I don’t think you can improve on The Great Gatsby.”

GATZ

Preview May 15, season May 16-31, various times, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, 9250 7777, $50-$72.

* This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Metro, on 24 April, 2009.

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