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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

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