Nose to tail

A word-for-word production of "The Great Gatsby" is a hymn to its prose

Literary butchery to start the London International Festival of Theatre, which gets underway with a filleted Hamlet and a nose to tail, word-for-word staging of The Great Gatsby.

They share a concern with public appearances. Jay Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald’s mysterious personification of the American dream (real name: James Gatz), is a man constructed for show; living proof of “the unreality of reality". dreamthinkspeak’s Hamlet, meanwhile, knows not seems. What you see is largely what you get, even though those around him wear skin-deep smiles,

Hang on: a word for word staging of The Great Gatsby? Over the eight hours of Gatz, including two intervals and 90 minutes for dinner, New York’s Elevator Repair Service get through every one of Fitzgerald’s 48,891 choice words – every "he said, she said" – until, at around 10.45pm, those famous boats finally beat on against the current.

Inevitably, there are peaks and troughs, but it’s nonetheless an extraordinary and transcendent piece of theatre: ticklish, absorbing, intricate and epic.

It works like this: a man (Scott Shepherd) walks into a downbeat office and turns on his computer. It crashes. Waiting for a reboot, he chances upon a well-thumbed copy of Fitzgerald’s text in his Rolodex and, with nothing better to do, starts to read aloud: “In my younger and more vulnerable years…”

As he grows increasingly engrossed, his workplace slowly starts to conform to the narrative. A phone rings on cue, a colleague chips in with dialogue and Shepherd doubles up as the book’s narrator Nick Carraway. His inscrutable boss sat opposite (Jim Fletcher) becomes Gatsby himself, the wealthy neighbour whose parties light up Long Island. The two worlds bleed into one another until jazz-age joie de vivre fills the workplace

That collision is often wryly funny – ERS handle the text with an awkward literalism – but also immensely fruitful. It underscores the novel’s effervescence with glum graft and business – a word that Fitzgerald ties to shady deals, debt and death - and thoroughly exposes the great lie of the American dream; that it is built on the inequality of the great American drudge.

This tension between words and image often tips into outright contradiction. In place of Fitzgerald’s resplendent social butterflies are washed-out, middle-aged workers. Lucy Taylor’s Daisy, Gatsby’s lost love, is bleached and bloodless; her athletic husband Tom (Robert Cucuzza) corresponds to a security guard with a spare tyre. Often, if the text describes a nod of the head, an actor will shake theirs. Smiles are replaced with hostile stares.

Not only does this brilliantly stress Nick’s narratorial unreliability, it allows everything a contradictory double. Even Fletcher’s Gatsby is a bald, ungainly Lurch-like figure with a rumbling sotto bass voice. He is always still his former self: the college dropout, ex-janitor and former soldier with few prospects, James Gatz. You can’t but watch critically and, in the process, all possibilities exist at once. Even Gatsby’s pink suit is made of three different shades: jaded strawberry ice-cream, suave raspberry and a gauche neon.

In this way, Gatz is a celebration of reading and the pleasure of sinking into an exquisite story. Every now and then, Shepherd checks the stopped office clock, shrugs and reburies himself. In performance, the book truly comes alive. Fitzgerald’s writing gets an extra gloss. It gains dramaturgy and rhythm: more hollow moments linger like hangovers, a soundtrack of screeching brakes makes crashes (both mechanical and financial) seem inevitable. Words that are dully uniform on the page become a symphony and Shepherd seems to underline and italicse as he goes. For all his memory and delivery is astounding though, Fitzgerald’s prose, sparkling with detail, is the true star of Gatz.

If ERS take textual reverence to the extreme, dreamthinkspeak approach Shakespeare’s text with iconoclastic relish. The more famous the line, the less likely it is to survive intact. Gertrude’s commanded to a nunnery. “To be or not to be” comes shuffled into nonsense.

Tristan Sharps makes a reptile house of Elsinore, with each character "caged" behind glass in their own room. In his bathroom, Claudius practices his public address. Gertrude sits at her dressing table. Ed Hogg’s emo Hamlet plays assassin in his bedroom. There’s the gloss of Cruel Intentions herein.

Sharps centres on invasions of privacy. Hamlet’s room is repeatedly searched and his diary, full of suicidal poetry, becomes public knowledge. Ophelia invades her father’s office. Sharps reminds us of the whispered conspiracies behind Elsinore’s closed doors and the fixed smiles worn in public.

However, he loses as much as he gains, reducing Hamlet to a comic strip of its telltale tableaux. Worse still, by glossing over royalty and cutting Fortinbras, Sharps loses the sense of a nation hanging in the balance, and deflates the stakes to that of a family affair. In laying bare the entrails, Sharps goes a cut too far.
 

A swimming pool: a central image in "The Great Gatsby"
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Forbidden forests: how Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows saved the trees

How Bloomsbury used the Harry Potter series to make publishing eco-friendly.

“Of all the trees we could have hit, we had to hit one that hits back,” says Harry of the Whomping Willow, which successfully whomps both him and Ron when they arrive at Hogwarts by car. The incident is representative of a natural world that often appears remarkably robust in JK Rowling's original series. There is little sign of wizards being plagued by air pollution or acid rain. And while Dementors may lurk in the shadows, climate change does not.

Yet just as Rowling's wands pay tribute to the trees they're hewn from – with their hawthorn, holly and hornbeam woods as key to their construction as their pheonix feather or unicorn hair cores – so too would her books.

By the time The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, all its UK texts, jackets and cases were printed on forest-friendly paper. The move by Rowling and Bloomsbury “sent a clear signal to the rest of the world”, says Greenpeace’s Jamie Woolley, and was “the catalyst” for other publishers to follow suit.

The Potter transformation was inspired by a Greenpeace campaign. In the same year that the fifth Harry Potter went to press, their “Paper Trail” report revealed that the UK book publishing industry was unwittingly sourcing paper from vulnerable ancient forests in Finland and Canada.

Change spiralled from there. In 2005, Bloomsbury printed the UK’s hardback version of The Half Blood Prince on 30% Forest Stewardship Council certified paper. By 2007, the US publisher Scholastic had pledged that the first 12 million copies of The Deathly Hallows would all be printed on paper that was at least partly recycled or sustainable.

Thanks to this shift, UK books labeled with the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) logo are now becoming the rule rather than the exception. Over half of all British adults now recognize the mark, numerous UK publishers have upped their proportion of paper taken from FSC certified sources, and Penguin and Harper Collins have both pledged to reach 100 percent FSC sourced paper in the next three years.

But the challenge is also far from over. According to the FSC, many European and US publishers outsource their manufacturing to China, where imported timber from Indonesia is accompanied by one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.

In the UK, just 13 percent of land is covered by trees and a recent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee criticised forest regulation as “not fit for purpose”.

So what can readers do to help? The FSC recommends looking out for its logo on any book you buy. And if that's not enough to satisfy, the Harry Potter Alliance has created a guide to fighting climate change for fans. 

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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