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GATZ @ The Octagon Theatre gets 9/10


GATZ
@ Octagon Theatre
Friday, March 1, 2019

9/10

It’s an audacious concept – to stage the entire text of The Great Gatsby read aloud over eight hours. It made for an amusing game of sorts beforehand when I told people what I was doing on Friday afternoon and evening, with largely incredulous reactions and slow shakes of the head at the preposterous notion someone would attend such an event, more so that it has successfully toured for over 10 years.

Yet, after experiencing opening night here in Perth last Friday, it was truly memorable theatre; a celebration of literature and the power of the text.

The set design was minimalistic, with a table in the foreground that most of the action revolved around, a desk in the corner with the lighting and sound effects guy that was a fixture throughout (and who occasionally became a member of the cast), a lounge, and a window to a corridor that ran along the back to a glassed-in office.

The true star of Gatz, just as in the book, is Scott Shepard’s Nick. Shepard read while clutching a tatty copy of the book, his voice and manners rising with the action when it was called for or pausing for a dramatic or ironic look out at the audience after a particularly choice line.

Other characters from the excellent ensemble would launch into their lines on cue, jump-cutting with Nick’s monologue in a seamless flow. Jim Fletcher’s Gatsby saw a gruff and silent office boss from the first act transform through the play to give Jay the complex and tragic qualities befitting of the love-struck, contemplative millionaire. Although in this version, director John Collins has gone away from the Hollywood characterisations of Gatsby played by the brooding and dashing actors Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio, instead revealling his essential vacuity (so plain in the text), exposing that shallow world and the American Dream.

The play starts as Shepard’s computer refuses to boot up, and he begins to read the first lines of The Great Gatsby. The other office workers eventually begin to act out the characters in the book. As the action on stage tracked the book, the characters that were not involved in the action would occupy themselves absent-mindedly in the office, such as flipping through magazines, sorting mail or typing up a document. Then, they would jump into their roles when the text came around and involved them. Often, the actors would pre-empt the action of the text, pulling it forwards and keeping you switched on to even the subtlest movements.

The play was not a solid eight hours of action but punctuated by two shorter breaks, with a longer “half-time” dinner break for over an hour. These breaks allowed the audience to refresh and discuss. The second act was probably the most powerful, as Gatsby was squarely in the action at this point in the novel, the former office transformed to other places such as Gatsby’s mansion or a downtown parlour.

That the play was so tightly bound to a text did not distract, but rather drew you deeply into Fitzgerald’s wonderful prose. This was the true charm of Gatz – to literally bring to life this smart, astutely observed short novel through the power of the words themselves.

After the play was over, there was a feeling – similar to that upon finishing an epic book – of profound connection: to the book, to the actors, to the creators and even to the other audience members who we collectively experienced the play with. It’s not often to have the opportunity to partake in such an immersive, long-form event. But for those who experienced Gatz over the weekend as part of the Perth Festival, it was an unforgettable play that will resonate for a long time.

PAUL DOUGHTY

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