Last year I took part in Visual Editions’ evening out at the V&A, where I was a Reader Outlouder, waylaying passing visitors with my single page of Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1. You can read my thoughts and impressions here. Last weekend I went to see how it should be done, courtesy of Elevator Repair Service, the American company who brought to London their production Gatz, a quasi-dramatisation of The Great Gatsby that includes every single word of the book read out on stage.
It was an incredible, immersive experience – it received what was probably a unanimous standing ovation, which isn’t so rare, but what is more significant (in my self-obsessed little world) is that it also got one from me. I hate standing ovations as a mark of appreciation almost as much as I love clapping as the same thing, and at present I can think of only one other show where I’ve partaken in that most self-congratulatory of gestures. (I also shouted ‘More!’, which I at any rate thought was funny. The whole thing lasts over eight hours, though only six of those are actually theatre.)
The premise of Gatz is simple. A man sits in an office – a badly appointed place of cardboard filing boxes and high rickety metal shelves, sometime in the 80s, if the computer and cordless phone are anything to go by – and opens his Rolodex to find not the usual index cards but a well-thumbed copy of the Fitzgerald book. He starts reading it out loud to himself. His coworkers look at him strangely, but try and get on with their day. (Their office talk is a near-mimed mumble, which is a little distracting.)
At first he reads the voices of the different characters, with his co-workers occasionally physically echoing characters from the book, but at a certain point they leap, unaccountably, into the world of the novel, and start speaking ‘their’ lines. It’s a nimble theatrical trick, but it works for one reason only, that Scott Shepherd maintains his connection to the audience at all times. He is reading to us. The ‘actors’… well, they may be puppets of his imagination, or victims of a strange literary enchantment, it matters not. What matters is that Shepherd is telling us the story.
It matters, too, that he doesn’t know the story, he is coming to it fresh and clean, and so finds himself constantly surprised by what happens (and by the prose in which it happens) – even when the ‘character actors’ inhabit their roles completely, intuitively, unknowingly. Shepherd is always the last to know. Which, of course, fits the situation of ‘his’ character, the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, too.
So, there’s some marvellous theatrical business (it’s always great to see a stage set near-destroyed: here, the office is comprehensively mussed up during the hilarious/tawdry party that nasty old Tom Buchanan drags Nick along to in his mistress’s apartment in New York. The double joy is that, the next morning, we get to see everyone, very hungover, tidy it up: that doesn’t happen in Private Lives.) and some of the performances are great (some of them lack subtlety, some are so counterintuitive/mis-cast that they’ll have you wondering about them days later – check out Jim Fletcher, centre in the picture, for the most un-Gatsby-like Gatsby imaginable) but really it’s the act of reading that holds you.
Being read to aloud is a treat that rarely extends beyond childhood. It is one of the rewards of parenthood that you get to revive it, and to enjoy it doubly by reading aloud the books you once had read to you. Apart from that? Please don’t mention book readings. Book readings are, almost without exception, terrible. Partly because of the readers. (Can I name a writer who’s a good reader of their own work? James Ellroy, perhaps.) Partly because of the context. Nobody’s here to listen to the author read, or to hear what she’s reading. They’re here to see the author, collect their spent carbon dioxide, perhaps buy their signature. What is read is not entertainment. It is advertising. It is a sample of the wares laid out on the table afterwards, along from the bad cheap wine and the publisher’s intern who doesn’t know how to work the credit card machine. It is not in the reader’s (the author’s) interest to have what is read be sufficient unto itself.
Forget book readings. (Though I should mention Liars League, who give stories to actors to read: a definite improvement.)
Here’s what’s great about reading aloud. It changes the pace of narrative from the real-time velocity of people in a room, living, to the internal velocity of the human mind trying to process that life.
Writing is the process of discovering the words required to describe life. Reading is the uncovering of those words. Reading aloud, when it is done with a minimum of theatrical know-how, is a magnificent, magical combination of the two. The words on the page are lead, the words in the air gold, the sensibility of the reader the catalyst. Here are some examples:
The way that Shepherd would look at, for example, ‘Gatsby’, sat across the office desk from him, as he negotiates a passage describing him. The glance up from the page, back down to the page; the sheer impassive blankness of Fletcher, who embodies Gatsby, represents him, but refuses to portray him. It’s the words that are doing that.
The tiny comic jolt when the dialogue between characters comes to an end and Shepherd, engrossed (like us) in the scene, realises it’s his turn, that the dialogue has finished and everyone’s waiting for him. The double take twitch back to the page.
The way Shepherd negotiates a sentence, picking up the rhythm of it as he goes, speeding up, with swelling confidence, as he realises (mere seconds before we realise) where the sentence is going, perhaps accompanying himself with a gesture of the hand, as if to conduct himself. The sheer power of speeding up (sometimes rushing), and slowing down (sometimes stumbling), because you know what the listener needs to get from the words.
Then there’s the ending. Or rather, the point a dozen or so pages back, in which you suddenly realise that Shepherd is not reading the book in his hands, is simply speaking its words (has become, in fact, in a final act of transfiguration, Nick Carraway). The killer touch: that he doesn’t put the book down, he holds it, riffles backwards through the pages. It’s weird to see, after all the page-turnings that have come before. It’s like the ‘stroboscopic effect’ in car adverts when the spokes of the car’s wheels appear to be going backwards. And, of course, it’s a metaphorical embodiment of the imperishable final lines of the book itself (the book in hand): “boats against the current”… I almost feel like giving another standing ovation, here at my desk.
Seeing a novel read aloud/dramatised like this can help you understand how it’s constructed. You see how much of it is ‘scenes’, with Shepherd throwing in “He said”s and “She said”s among the careering dialogue, and how much of it description, recollection, elegy. You can see a scene opened up, as if on the operating table, as in the awful scene (echo of that earlier party) when Tom, Nick, Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan drive to New York and sit uncomfortably in a too-hot hotel suite and thoroughly disassemble their relationships, while the music from a wedding drifts up from downstairs. You’ll rush through that scene on the page, eager to see what awful things they say to each other. On stage, it is drawn out, the painful gaps between spiteful accusations widened like wounds. But it’s better than it would be fully dramatised, because Nick Carraway is not simply sitting mortified in the corner, looking on, but is dragged back in, every now and then, against his will, to mouth a stage direction: “There was a moment of silence. The telephone book slipped from its nail and splashed to the floor, whereupon Jordan whispered, ‘Excuse me’ – but this time no one laughed.”
The production is a marvel, that not just puts in the shade the whole idea of ‘adaptation’, but makes it entirely otiose. I can’t imagine anyone who saw and enjoyed Gatz even thinking about going to see Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming movie version of the book, with its stress placed entirely on the party sequences – in 3D! Never has the new-old gag about theatre being in 3D been so apt. And if adaptations seem paltry in comparison, then how about voiceovers? We all knew voiceovers were the last refuge of the incompetent screenwriter (or the misjudged adaptation). Here’s proof. The brilliance of Gatz is that it upends the ‘Show, don’t tell’ dictum. It tells, and sets that telling against a residual shadow play of showing.
Gatz is on until the 15th July. I heard on Twitter of day tickets going for £25. Go. Go. Go.