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"
A still from Genius
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Thomas Wolfe biopic Genius is a hackneyed portrait of the great white male

Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically reproducing the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays.

You can learn everything you need to know about the film Genius, starring Jude Law as the volatile novelist Thomas Wolfe and Colin Firth as his weary editor, Maxwell Perkins, from its opening five minutes.

An overly desaturated shot of Twenties New York reveals a hoard of hardworking men trudging solidly through the ratrace of city life. But what’s this? One man is set apart, lingering on a street corner and staring up at the words “Charles Scribner’s Sons” on the building across the street. He smokes and stares, so we know he is like other men – yet different, more thoughtful.

Meanwhile, alone in an office, another man is reading Hemingway. He is interrupted by an enormous pile of papers that lands with a thud on his desk. This manuscript has been rejected by every other editor in the city (a sign of true, misunderstood literary genius). Is it any good, the reading man asks Manuscript Delivery Man? “Good? No! But it’s unique.”

Our reading man opens page one of the manuscript. “… A stone, a leaf, an unfound door…” His interest is piqued – here is a man who knows the earthy prose of a true male genius. We are treated to cinema's most captivating delight: a reading montage. The reading man barely glances up from his paper as he jumps aboard a leaving steam train. “… Of a stone, a leaf, a door…” The train races through the countryside. “And of all the forgotten faces…” The reading man trudges up a country path, still engrossed.

“Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart?” The reading man enters his home. He spares a fleeting glance for a woman (His wife? It is hardly relevant) in a sitting room surrounded by pieces of womanly fabric and several other ladies. Nameless girls (His daughters? They are beside the point) run delicately from room to room, giggling. Over dinner, he looks up at them occasionally to smile blandly at their delightful artlessness, but he cannot enter into trivial conversation – immersed as he is in the world of the story. “Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?”

Our reader reads overnight, down the country path, on the same train in the morning light. “He stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch,” he reads. “He was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left.” He finishes the manuscript and sighs with the deep satisfaction of a man who is, finally, understood.

Cut to black. The word “GENIUS” appears on screen.

As an exploration of our problematic understanding of the word, Genius the movie is more revealing than any satire. It’s a script that could have been written by Mallory Ortberg. But its conception of genius as white, male, American, self-absorbed, indulgent, obsessed with its own individuality, and unable to comprehend its mediocrity, is presented without irony or self-awareness.

The movie continues in this general vein: Perkins and Wolfe strike up a friendship as well as a professional relationship and spend long hours together drinking whiskey, talking with what they consider to be great wisdom about how love is a lighting bolt!! and repeatedly crossing out words (as cinematically thrilling as you might expect). We meet other “geniuses” aside from Perkins and Wolfe: Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We ponder upon the real nature of genius – is it writing “wrenched from the gut”? Temperate editing? Or the genius of knowing your fellow man? There are writing montages, editing montages, and lots of close-ups of typewriting, crumpled papers, and streaks of red pencil. Hold on to your hats, kids, cause this is going to be a wild ride!

Women, black people, and the homeless are all used as vague backdrops onto which these conversations play out – but never fully considered as real, human people, people who Wolfe might find worthy for his next book, an investigation into America – all of it! In one scene, Wolfe and Perkins walk past a queue for a soup kitchen, prompting Wolfe to launch into a rant about the state of the country. “My work is frivolous!” he cries on a rooftop. But Perkins assures him of his enormous emotional contribution to society, and Wolfe soon seems to forget the men named on IMDB only as “Dock Worker / Homeless Man”. They stand arm-in-arm, smiling sagely out over a struggling city neither seem to know very well. Strings swell approvingly.

In another, we head to a jazz club with Wolfe and Perkins, so Perkins can experience the musical inspiration behind Wolfe’s experimental prose. The writers decide to best depict this with Wolfe throwing around words like “savage” while badly explaining the concept of jazz to anyone who’ll listen, before making grim sexual advances towards three women simultaneously: “Jazz Club Woman 1”, “Jazz Dancer” and “Jazz Club Customer”. It is not deemed necessary to give anyone other than Wolfe and Perkins any dialogue.

The film makes a less than half-hearted attempt to engage with the question of female creativity through Wolfe and Perkins’ partners. Wolfe’s girlfriend, the married Alice Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) is portrayed as Wolfe’s earliest and most steadfast champion: financially, emotionally and creatively supporting his literary endeavours. She is a set designer, and after Wolfe finds fame, he refuses to recognise her job as a creative or necessary pursuit, refusing to come to her plays.

As Wolfe becomes disinterested in her, Bernstein’s character changes at lightning speed scene to scene, one minute vindictively pointing a gun at her replacement, Perkins, the next swallowing handfuls of pills, supposedly as an act of attention-seeking, the next vowing she feels nothing for Wolfe at all. By the end of the film, she is reduced to muttering trite statements about how Wolfe was the sole thing that made her feel truly alive. We meet Zelda Fitzgerald, but only after she has been all but overcome by mental illness: she, too, is a hysterical prop used to warn the central men of the dangers of their obsession with their work.

Perkins’ wife is also a female artist side-lined. In one strange scene, we see her describe her playwriting, only to be talked over by Wolfe, who declares drama an “anaemic form” and returns to the topic of his novel, while Perkins’ daughters giggle at him in awe. We never hear of Louise’s work (or, indeed, anything about her that is not related to her husband and children) again. Perkins’ children, too, are only seen as interesting when they’re talking about their father or Wolfe.

These vague diversions do little to actually analyse the discriminatory way in which genius is conceived, be it in the Thirties or 2016. Here, genius is something white men do as their wives and daughters grow increasingly bitter. The homeless man standing out in the cold, or the black sex worker in a jazz club could have nothing of interest to add. In only allowing Wolfe and Perkins (and Hemingway and Fitzgerald) to speak for themselves, Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically perpetuating the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.