Adaptations of novels have always provided a source of material for the stage and online theatre has been no exception. Over the last year or so I have seen Jane Eyre, Treasure Island, Small Island, Wise Children, What A Carve Up!, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, Moby Dick, Frankenstein, The Grinning Man, Heart Of Darkness, Nicholas Nickleby and Great Expectations given a staged make over. And that’s not to mention a number of children’s books plus key fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes being extracted from their source material and given a new lease of life. And so, to the latest page to stage transfer with a version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in a co-production from Wardrobe Ensemble and Wardrobe Theatre.
Forget the glossy film versions starring Robert Redford and Leonardo di Caprio, this retelling is a much more stylised thing consisting of just two performers with no detailed set, or shimmering costumes. There are no magnificent party scenes at the Gatsby mansion involving dozens of extras and little attempt to invocate the roaring 20s as an era of decadence and reaction against the Great War. The stylistic cue seems to have been taken from the company Shared Experience who, over the years, have made a virtue of exploring the texts of classic novels and which have been heavily reliant on physical theatre techniques. The text has, of course, been truncated but still contains a good deal of Fitzgerald’s poetic prose and is acknowledged as being a novel by being split into distinct sections/chapters.
The two actors, Tamsin Hurtado Clarke and Jesse Meadows display impressive amounts of energy not to mention the feat of memory it must have taken to learn the text. It’s an endurance test for the performers, not that they make that obvious as they are clearly relishing the experience. Unusually, for what is rather a male dominated novel, they play all the roles both major and minor. Inevitably this leads to each of them having to handle a dialogue with themselves which, surprisingly, turns out not be as confusing as it might appear. Meadows, for instance, takes on both narrator Nick Carraway and central character Daisy Buchanan and manages to transmute from one to the other with a mere twitch of the shoulders of a cardigan. Other characters are delineated by what they wear (a pink jacket for Gatsby), carry (a riding crop for Tom Buchannan) or vocally (a technical trick employed at the sound board gives garage owner George Wilson a gravelly voice).
Director Tom Brennan’s decision to steer away from the style of the films and even the period depicted in these and in the original novel proves a wise decision as it places the production in a rather more general setting which stops it from being an historical artefact. Much of the music by Tom Crosley-Thorne has a contemporary quality about it too; there’s certainly nobody about to do the Charleston in the party scenes. There’s quite a bit about driving in the novel and this is ingeniously represented by using toy cars. Scenes are also punctuated by another interesting idea as the two actors attack a canvas at the back and engage in some live painting; if I’m honest I’m not really sure why this has been included but it breaks up the narrative in a satisfactory manner.
I don’t think I enjoyed this adaptation so much as admired it. At well over ninety minutes, it’s stretching concentration levels to keep engaging with a minimalist production and just the two actors, good as they undoubtedly are. There’s a lot of narration to put over and, without an audience to narrate to, these portions can seem to slow things down too much. And I’m afraid I did miss the glitz and glamour of the party going that is usually associated with the text. This stripped back production is still a commendable achievement though and I’m sure many others will give it a high approval rating. Plans seems to be afoot to take the production on tour, once… well, just once…. and then it really will be party time.
Production photos by Jack Offord
The Great Gatsby is available on the Wardrobe Theatre’s website – click here
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