Nick, played by Scott Shepherd, book-in-hand for all except the last enraptured, reflective 40 minutes, becomes Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s ambivalent narrator who works in New York’s financial district in the post-war 1920s and becomes embroiled in Jay Gatsby’s hedonistic Long Island lifestyle and his obsession with Daisy Buchanan.
John Collins’ production for the Elevator Repair Service of New York, presented by LIFT, comes trailing all sorts of recommendations for its radical austerity, but it strikes me as failing to have any interesting attitude to its material, to be lazily engineered in the modern dowdy office setting, and to be deeply non-theatrical.
The same was not true of a much sharper distillation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which the ERS brought to the Edinburgh Festival four years ago (running at a mere three-and-a-half hours). Here, the show plods on with Jim Fletcher as a doomy-voiced, Boris Karloff-style Gatsby and Lucy Taylor as a whacked-out, unappealing subversion of his scintillating Southern belle.
The stage is deliberately under-energised, as if to place Fitzgerald’s silvery, glistening prose in ironic relief. But the effect is the opposite. The enervating tedium of the office set-up is disastrously contagious, and the acting dull, with Manhattan street sounds mingling with jazz age party noise and screeching car tyres on a soundtrack operated in full view by one of the actors at the side of the stage.
The skill of great theatrical adaptations of novels – David Edgar’s of Nicholas Nickleby, Shared Experience’s A Passage to India, or even Les Misérables – is to make you feel that nothing has been left out … apart from the controlling voice of the narrating author. And here, that’s the part you often wish had been omitted. While you see the point of not having Robert Redford and Mia Farrow on the stage, boy do you long for them by the end.
Certain descriptive stretches, such as the first sight of Gatsby’s illuminated mansion, or of the party drunk who declares, astonished, that all the books in Jay’s library are real, or the proximity of Daisy’s green light burning at the end of her dock across the bay, sit up effectively, and it’s good to hear them. And no film adaptation will ever include Nick’s confession that his underwear is climbing around his legs like a wet snake on a blazingly hot New York afternoon.
Nick’s girlfriend, the golf champion Jordan Baker, thrice described as “jaunty”, is pertly played by Susie Sokol, though the parallel contrast between her relationship with Nick and that of Jay and Daisy, which could have been more theatrically charged, is left hanging. But I did like the desolate melancholy of the outing to the Plaza Hotel, with the characters stranded in a livid half-light while the strains of Mendelssohn’s wedding march seep through the floorboards.
There’s no clinching dramatic statement of how the enigmatic boss in the contemporary office relates to his alter ago, Gatsby, and the framing stage metaphor is simply abandoned in the rhapsodic adieus of the last pages. And what could have been a surprise masterstroke, the appearance of Jay’s father at the end, is merely a crushing let-down, hide-bound by textual fidelity and very poor acting.