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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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.