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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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times