Even if you don't know the whole story of F. Scott's Fitzgerald's classic 1925 American novel, the chances are you'll still be aware that it's an homage to the decadent, glamorous party lifestyle of post-WWI America – oozing with sexuality and debauchery in its comment on the importance society assigned to status at that time (arguably not that different to the showbiz world we see in our tabloids today). That glitz and glamour seem an ideal starting place from which to create an immersive theatrical experience for any audience – so it's all the more surprising that this premiere by Blackeyed Theatre eschews all that, with a production that seems to want to distance the audience so far from any party atmosphere – indeed any atmosphere at all – that we are left feeling cold and empty rather than swept away by the dream.
A heady and over complicated cocktail that lacks both the fizz and the substance required for any of Gatsby's parties
We are told – narrated – the story by another outsider to this world, bondsman Nick Carraway, recently moved next door to the mysterious and much vaunted Jay Gatsby and the endless parties for the rich and famous that he hosts. Through Nick's eyes we see (or rather, we hear... we constantly hear) how the shimmering veneer of society is but a fragile cover for dysfunctional relationships and complex but unresolved emotional needstates, and how the desire to be popular doesn't necessarily lead to being liked – by others or ourselves. The alluring Gatsby is at the centre of this world – the tragic hero who, whilst arguably just wanting to be liked, remains largely unknown, unloved and ultimately losing all he worked for as the world he has created slowly disintegrates around him.
In adapting the story for the stage, writer Stephen Sharkey says he was challenged to "convey the driving, forward momentum of the tragedy while... giving us time to observe the rarefied air of that particular place and time, the 'jazz age'". Writing about the approach taken, Director Eliot Giuralarocca clearly understands the need to bring to life these opposing worlds, acknowledging the "cynical detachment is mixed with intrigue", "the moral emptiness that lies just beneath the shimmering surface" and his approach to "serve the material theatrically... with moments of heightened realism and sensuality".
It's an ambitious plan to combine both worlds evenly and have the desired effect on the audience, and they have clearly used some theatrical trickery to achieve this. The problem is that there is little consistency to the use of these signifiers and so, rather than help to create atmosphere or emotion, they feel disjointed and interruptive. It's a small cast of only seven, so the immediate challenge is how to convey the huge mix of people that society brings and the detail that makes it seem so exciting. They attempt this by continually pointing at the audience and telling us what and who they can see – and what (and who) they are doing. They tell us and tell us and tell us and tell us some more – listing names, activity, times of day, weather and even asking over our heads for a pen at one point. Boy do they like to tell us enough to make sure it really sinks in just in case we missed the first few times. And as they're seemingly locked into this style of telling us rather than, say, showing us, they also apply it to their own character development far too often – as soon as we meet Daisy (the object of Gatsby's affections) she TELLS us "I've had a very bad time and I'm pretty cynical about everything". Maybe that's helpful shorthand for the students of the text who are watching on the expected school trips – but the rest of us end up feeling as though we are watching others watching others and then being told about it, rendering us emotionally cold and unable to empathise.
Having decided this is the way to create the social glamour, they then set out to detach us from it – as seems to be per plan. As well as their primary roles, most of the cast play multiple smaller parts that pass us by indistinctly with little more than a change of ill-fitting costume (the nurse in particular seems to be wearing an outfit made for a pantomime dame) so we don't really know or care who they are, only realising this is a loss when a couple turn up as key players in the denouement. They all sing or play songs and music from the era at various points – sometimes as background to a scene (it's a party so here are some singers singing in the corner), sometimes to build dramatic tension (an oft-repeated mischord throughout Act 2 as the tragedy reaches a crescendo) and, on at least one occasion, to replace script (in a most bizarre way to introduce Gatsby's version of his own life story, they decide against monologue and instead have the cast become clown like animal shapes before breaking into a music hall style performance of The Shark of Araby). A sign telling of the impact the music has is when the use of Irving Berlin's What'll I Do does little more to the audience than cause murmurs of "That's the Birds of a Feather song innit?" which, whilst possibly not easy to avoid, at least begs the question of why they couldn't find any other song of the period that wouldn't detract in this way. Or was the rest of the music so not thought through that they just didn't care?
The set itself is pure white and offers many different levels in which to set "any place, any location" as the story demands – but with no clear borders or sections, it remains just ANY place, a merging blank canvas with no obvious delineation. Occasionally – again, not consistently – lighting is used to help create atmosphere (one particular location is signified by a pair of watching eyes on a back screen that turn green when jealousy is discussed and later, for anger, glow red) and environment (falling triangles represent rain – though lighting seems unnecessary for the heavy humid atmosphere of the summer and the tension that brings).
It all adds up to a disruptive execution of a story that we are primarily being talked to about. Intending to use theatricality to disarm the audience from the superficial world of glamour would be admirable. But here we haven't seen or felt the glamour (rather we have just been endlessly told about it) and there is no consistency to how the disruptions are being used, or even why. We are left feeling we have been talked at for a couple of hours with a series of cartoon visuals all illustrated differently. The whole thing needs someone to look at it and be strict about the original objectives, throwing out any device that doesn't achieve these. Without doing this, you just end up with too much being thrown in without enough thought being applied – so creating a heady and over complicated cocktail that lacks both the fizz and the substance required for any of Gatsby's parties.