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Jim Fletcher, Scott Shepherd & Lucy Taylor, Gatz, Elevator Repair Service Jim Fletcher, Scott Shepherd & Lucy Taylor, Gatz, Elevator Repair Service
courtesy the artists
GATZ, BY NEW YORK’S ELEVATOR REPAIR SERVICE, IS ONE OF THE STRANGER THEATRE EXPERIENCES OF RECENT TIMES, HOVERING TANTALISINGLY BETWEEN STRAIGHT PLAY-MAKING AND CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE. THE WORK RARELY SLIPS INTO BEING A LITERAL DRAMATISATION OF THE NOVEL, EXCEPT TOWARDS THE END, AND THEN TO CALCULATED EFFECT. IT’S AS IF WE ARE WITNESS TO AN INTERPLAY BETWEEN PARALLEL UNIVERSES: A 1990S CITY OFFICE AND THE 1920S OF F SCOTT FITZGERALD’S NOVEL, THE GREAT GATSBY.

But while the office workers read and enact the book, they do it quite unconsciously. It has little reciprocal impact on their lives save for the central reader’s absorption in it and the occasional curiosity or irritation of the others. The novel they give voice and body to does not loop back into their lives. You would think that this might yield an incomplete theatrical experience but, curiously, it doesn’t. It’s not a play about these people. It’s about something else, a novel and how we and the performers imagine and make actual the world it conjures.

In a realistic, tired looking city office, a worker in a down-time moment when his computer fails finds a copy of The Great Gatsby and begins to read it, aloud. He doesn’t stop, although office life continues around and sometimes with him and night and day seem to pass. His computer is checked, taken away and returned, but never works. He keeps reading, becoming the voice and sometimes the body of the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway. His fellow workers, without fanfare, become the other characters. There are simple links: the worker who reads golfing magazines and practises her swing becomes Jordan Baker; the computer technician becomes a garage mechanic; the boss, like Gatsby, is a somewhat distant, reticent character, an ominous presence. The humble office becomes mansion or hotel, but only, as in the act of reading, by virtue of the conjuring power of words, and here along with the deft deployment of office ware as props. Gatz is first and foremost a reading but its actor-office workers prompt us to imagine Gatsby’s world with them. And while they can never make it real (a filing cabinet will never be a chest of drawers full of exquisite shirts) they, and Gatz’s creators, offer not just reading, but a reading of the novel.

But first, there’s an odd pleasure in simply being read to in the comfort of a theatre, although much theatre we experience is, of course, so rooted in words that theatre-going, as listening, is often another form of reading. There’s also a sense of challenge and, finally, of achievement for the performers and audience of Gatz—the reading of and listening to every word of The Great Gatsby over some eight hours. For most of its audience, it’s a painlessly ‘durational’ performance. We’re not just listening, we’re ‘seeing’ a novel through the bodies of unglamorous office workers, themselves pretty much ciphers, dextrously wielding office props and unconsciously if convincingly play-acting. They are at their most real when they become Fitzgerald’s characters. (The actors are only identified on the cast list in terms of their characters in the novel, not their office personae.) But their vision, and that of Gatz’s creators, of the world of the novel is determined by their means: the words heard are immediately re-shaped for us as tableaux, as witty improvisations, comic turns, farce and song, engendering not only immediacy but amplifying the novel’s underrated satirical bite and Nick’s penchant for moralising. As with any interpretation there’s room to disagree: reducing the re-meeting of Gatz and Daisy to embarrassed farce undercuts a significant part of the novel’s power. Among minor irritations, in this case of humour lost, was the drowning out of Nick’s listing of Gatsby’s well-to-do guests with a loud recording of a 20s tune: the names might well have come from the hand of the comic genius of Fitzgerald contemporary and Marx Brothers’ collaborator, SJ Perelman.

A much bigger challenge arrives when, with significant rearrangement of furniture and radical intensification of lighting, the semblance of office disappears and the fateful hotel gathering on an overbearingly hot day is starkly realised. Although a risky departure, the scene manages to work, in good part because of its oppressive and threatening stillness, the lateral positioning of the characters, whom we know so well by now, and because we’re still being read to. It’s not long, however, before the office worker reading the final pages of the novel puts it down, faces us and continues to deliver the narrative. For a brief while, this obsessed reader becomes totally Nick. As in the best reading experiences, the self appears forgotten and office worker and the novel’s narrator become one, eye to eye with us, his readers in turn.

Despite a little too much of an inclination to comedy and over-stated irony, and a late tendency to over-theatricalisation, Gatz proved a deeply rewarding re-visiting of a classic novel, at the same time generating an intriguing meditation on the experiences of theatre and reading. The casual, taking-its-own-time performance mode was immediately engaging; you could nestle into it. Scott Shepherd’s reading of most of the book (another actor takes over briefly) was quietly brisk and unaffected. For an actor with an eye almost constantly on the book we never doubted his presence nor, eventually, that his office worker might become Nick. Ross Fletcher’s looming, formal Gatz, intoned Fitzgerald’s dialogue with almost Brechtian detachment, and the other players convinced even where limited to broad gestures.

Gatz is a work of great invention and craft, of Herculean effort and, above all, imagination—which is its very subject, playing off the experience of being read to against witnessing a simultaneous, if lateral, interpretation of the reading, until the two meet. The boldness of the work lies in its refusal to psychologise its office workers, they are supple puppets, play-acting a great novel, layering a suggestive, interpretive filter between audience and book.


Elevator Repair Service, Gatz, The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, director John Collins, set design Louisa Thompson, lighting Mark Barton, sound design Ben Williams, costumes Colleen Werthmann; Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, May 15-31:

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 43

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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