Gatz: A Sensational Exercise in Theatre

July 25, 2012 9:30 am

The sensational, vibrant Gatz in full party swing!

You might have heard of Gatz, the somewhat infamous eight-hour play that’s had a month long run in the West End as part of the London International Festival of Theatre this summer at the Noel Coward Theatre. The fact of it lasting eight hours usually makes an impression and sometimes generates curiosity. How do you put on an eight hour long play? How do the actors manage it? As the audience, how do you follow it?

Gatz begins in a drab office stacked with ageing computers and tarnished workers. When the former malfunctions, the latter picks through the impersonal drawers of his desk and stumbles upon a book. He begins to read F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby. At first, he reads somewhat vapidly and in a low voice, but the more engrossed he gets, the sooner the grim superior across the desk from him becomes Gatsby, the office beauty is transformed into Daisy and the muscly guard into bully Tom Buchanon.

The work of art that is The Great Gatsby.

Scott Shepherd displays remarkable stamina as he delivers every word of Fitzgerald’s classic and pulls the rest of the cast and the audience in on this wonderful journey with him. The slow and grinding start goes on to develop into a wonderful and gripping story thanks to Fitzgerald’s beautiful, stunning prose, but most importantly thanks to the inventiveness of the director and the cast. Although the play relies strongly on the text, its nuances are accentuated by the more and more involved cast until the stifling confines of the office seamlessly dissolve into colourful rendition of the 1920s jazz age without adding or removing a piece of scenery. The real change takes place in the viewer as magnificent fiction expands its hold on the imagination.

Soon enough, the audience and the performers have joined forces in keep the energy and interest levels high. According to Jim Fletcher (who plays Gatsby), if you can handle a play as long as Hamlet, you can get through Gatz. After three hours, you barely notice the time, he notes.

He’s right, as he would be, seeing that he’s been performing in this show since 2005 along with the rest of the ensemble. They’ve done it so many times that Shepherd, though he uses the book on stage, knows the text by heart. He demonstrates this in the last part of the show when the story has engaged him so much so that Carraway’s words are coming out of his own mouth. The complete absorbtion of the role of narrator makes the last hour so memorable that by the time he reaches the lauded final sentence: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’, you are at the edge of your seat refraining from a standing ovation before the final word is delivered.

While most reviewers have praised Gatz but gave it four stars, I will venture in saying it is without doubt a five star production. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, there’s the seemingly undying energy with which Shepherd reads and explores the text for six hours (not including the breaks), the imaginativeness of transforming a soulless office into a dreamy place and the continuing excitement that the cast sustains, making you feel like they’re doing it for the first time.

Go! Go! See it!

But more importantly, the play manages to add to the written text. It’s not a live audiobook in which the actor merely reads out loud. The humour of the text that would be so easily overlooked in reading alone is skilfully highlighted. At times, the play reverts to parody as innovative ways of evoking the scenes from the novel in the confines of the office are developed. One of my favourites happens as Daisy passes her hand to Carraway and he notices her hands are sweaty. On stage, they are made sweaty by an office worker spraying water on both their hands just as they are about to touch.

Finally, the long play reminded me of two important things. One, a book can be finished in a few hours and thus eliminates any excuse not to be read. And two, it reminded me of (and depicted) the incredible transformative power that a piece of fine literature has over its reader. Eight hours are rarely better spent.

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