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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Caroline Lucas's Diary

Saving my Commons seat, feeling sorry for Black Rod, and banning the bomb.

At the start of the week, I was in New York, where 130 countries are involved in the process of negotiating a global ban on nuclear weapons. You might not have heard of these talks, but there have been positive developments. Some nuclear states have softened their opposition to a ban, with China, India and Pakistan all abstaining from the vote last winter.

In this, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – a coalition of peace campaigns united across 90 countries – is following a well-trodden path. Chemical and biological weapons, cluster munitions and landmines were all banned before full-scale decommissioning and disarmament began. Stigmatising the weapons, rather than the hypocrisy of nuclear states lecturing non-nuclear nations, is the most effective way to prevent their proliferation.

You might hope that Britain would be taking a leading role in the talks, but our government is conspicuous by its absence. An hour-long meeting with a British ambassador who is a political counsellor to the UN left me none the wiser as to why we’re refusing to take part. Every time I pushed him for answers, I was met with the same answer: the UK simply doesn’t want to engage with the process. Though I very much enjoyed momentarily sitting in the UK’s seat at the UN, it’s a great shame that such a role was left to a single opposition MP.

Tragedy and farce

Almost exactly a year after Britain voted to leave the EU, David Davis was in Brussels to begin the exit process. Davis and his counterpart Michel Barnier were reported to have discussed the nuts and bolts of the negotiations, rather than going into detail on the content of any deal. What the government could have done on day one is guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, but instead – shamefully – it continues to use them as a bargaining chip.

Theresa May’s tendency to plough on as if nothing has changed is veering between tragedy and farce. With the majority of the public now favouring both Theresa May’s resignation and a referendum on the terms of any EU deal, there really is no excuse for business as usual – and it’s time the government considers a cross-party commission to guide us through this process.

Let us pray

Seats in parliament are hotly contested,  especially for backbenchers. Every day we have to put down “prayer cards” to reserve a space. On big occasions, the scrum to bag a decent spot can be rather unparliamentary. My usual perch is between the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru and in front of the newly famous DUP. That party’s leadership doesn’t always share my politics, and my speeches are often accompanied by heckling from the line of DUP men behind me.

The Northern Irish party now has ten MPs sitting in parliament, while I remain the single MP for a party that received 200,000 more votes. I’ll be doing all I can to represent the views of the people of Brighton Pavilion and the 500,000 who voted Green in this election – and I would imagine that I’m likely to hear more moaning from the DUP as I spend my time in the Commons holding to account the Conservative government that it is propping up.

Slamming doors

Well, that’s the Queen’s Speech done then, and the monarch now has two years to prepare for the next round of pomp and ceremony. Our democracy is the big loser here, with the Tories showing a marked disdain for debate and scrutiny. But spare a thought, too, for Black Rod, who now has to wait until 2019 to have the door of the House of Commons slammed ceremonially in his face. His real name is Lieutenant General David Leakey and he has a number of duties in parliament, but the Queen’s Speech is his big gig. I shouldn’t think he will take kindly to being sidelined in 2018.

I have my own tradition on Queen’s Speech day: talking about the environment. More and more, governments ignore climate change and environmental protection in their legislative plans, with the Tories abandoning their husky-hugging in favour of a dash for gas.

I’ll be tabling an amendment to the Queen’s Speech calling for an environmental protection act. It will be interesting to see which MPs are willing to put their head above the parapet by backing it.

As safe as houses

People died at the Grenfell Tower because it has become a politically acceptable choice to cut corners to save money. Despite the right-wing press attempting to blame the EU and green laws for the fire, it’s clear that the Grenfell residents are the victims of deregulation, neoliberalism and the marginalisation of people of colour and the poor.

The surviving Grenfell residents now need a chance to rebuild their lives, and that should start with being given new homes. There are more than 1,300 empty homes in Kensington and Chelsea, with 941 classified as unoccupied for council tax purposes. Around 50 of these have been unoccupied for a staggering 11 years. Surely it’s time to rethink a system that allows the super-rich to leave homes unoccupied while people are left homeless? Let’s hike council tax for unoccupied properties to stop our cities being used as land banks for the wealthy.

My thoughts are also with those affected by the vile attack on the Finsbury Park Mosque. Islamophobia is widespread in our society, propagated by the likes of Donald Trump and Ukip, as well as far-right groups such as Britain First. A tweet by J K Rowling about the radicalisation of the Finsbury Park attacker caused a stir, but she was right to say that the origins of right-wing violence need exploring just as urgently as
Islamic extremism.

After a scarring few months, let’s hope for a peaceful summer as Britain rebuilds its communities and mourns those who have died in these terrible incidents.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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