Wednesday 13 June 2012

'Gatz' at the Noel Coward Theatre

If you're the kind of person who reads blogs like this one (and if you're not, come on in), you've probably already heard about Gatz- the Elevator Repair Service's stage 'adaptation' - in this context, the word is slightly misleading - of The Great Gatsby, in which every word of the original novel is read.  It lasts around eight hours, including two intervals and a dinner break, so about six hours stage time, and is currently at the Noel Coward Theatre, after immense success in the States.

The show starts in an unspecified shabby office, apparently a few years ago, judging by the outdated computers and oversized mobile phones.  A man comes, discovers that his computer doesn't work, so he picks up a copy of the novel and starts to read it.  For a while we just hear his voice, as our ears adjust to hearing the rhythms of written prose spoken aloud (this is the hardest part of the show - if you can get through this, you'll probably have a good time).  Gradually, other characters start to appear, represented by the other workers in the office, so that, for instance, the man who comes to repair the computer becomes Wilson, the auto-mechanic.   On one level, it's a show about the experience of reading a novel, the way in which we cast it with locations and people from our own lives.

As the piece goes on, it gradually gets more 'staged', with set-pieces including a beautifully claustrophobic party at the flat rented by Tom Buchanan for his extra-marital affairs, and a remarkable coup de theatre towards the end (I won't say in case you're going to see it).   It's an amazing piece of story-telling - after a while, you get attuned to the style, as if the language were being placed under a microscope, so that it becomes hard at the intervals to readjust to normal speech.  While the standing ovation at the end did seem a bit obligatory, I joined it without demur  - apart from anything else,  it was quite nice to get up.

I was a few seats down from a friend who didn't enjoy it as much as I did.  She said - and I don't really disagree - that the office setting was under-realised (I doubt that even the cast could have told us what they actually did there) and might have been used more wittily, and that some of the peak moments, like the scene where Gatsby produces his shirts (quoted by William Goldman as a demonstration of the concept of subtext), went for too little.

So why didn't these things bother me?  I generally believe that an adaptation should be judged as an independent work of art, without reference to its original - so that, say, David Edgar's Nicholas Nickleby is a great play, and would be even if there were no novel of the same name.  Gatz is an unusual case - an adaptation which is always reminding us of its status as such, and of its own inadequacies.  That is should work is surprising, and I think says something about the original.

One reason why The Great Gatsby has never been successfully adapted for the screen (and does anyone really believe that Leonardo di Caprio will be any more three-dimensional than Alan Ladd or Robert Redford?) is that the protagonist is almost defined by his nebulousness; Fitzgerald holds off his first appearance for about a quarter of the novel, gives us hardly any physical description, and is constantly praising his personal qualities in phrases that are almost impossible to visualise:

'He smiled understandingly - more than understandingly.  It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.  It faced - or seemed to face - the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour.  It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey'

(The Great Gatsby, p.54)

At which point, it's not difficult to imagine Leo di Caprio throwing the book across the room and wondering if it isn't too late to find a less demanding way of supporting a lifestyle.  Even the author seems unsure of the accuracy of his own description; that 'or seemed to face' adds a note of self-sabotage, as if he himself doesn't understand the character.

This nebulousness is appropriate; Gatsby is a man of unclear past, probably criminal connections, and from a lower social class than he first appears.  (Gatsby is an unusual American novel in that it deals with the reality of class, as well as, almost subliminally, with race - Gatsby's real name, which gives this adaptation its title, contains a slight suggestion that he might be Jewish.)  It's quite telling that the novel is called The Great Gatsby, a phrase that never appears in it - it suggests a stage magician, conjuring up a new life.  In this respect, Gatsby is an American archetype, the labyrinth with nothing in its centre, ancestor to both Charles Foster Kane and Don Draper.

This, for me, is why the show worked so well - the style of adaptation (and I can't imagine it being appropriate for any other novel - some of Kafka, maybe)  accepts the central feature of the novel - its unknowability.  Given that it's impossible to visualise Gatsby, a balding bloke in a tatty office will do as well as anything.    This adaptation doesn't attempt to give a full representation of the character or milieu - it gives you just enough, and lets you do the rest of the work.  Gatz belongs to a relatively small category of artwork - a piece where the (inevitable) failure of the enterprise is part of the point.

Offhand I can think of only a few other examples of this phenomenon - the film A Cock and Bull Story, based on the 'essentially unfilmable' (IMDB) Tristram Shandy, art speigelman's Maus, where the subject matter is less the Holocaust than speigelman's own efforts to understand it (and where the mouse faces - speigelman himself called them 'masks' - give a Gatsby-like nebulousness to the characters), most of the work of the late Ken Campbell.  Sometimes, nothing succeeds like failure.

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