- Chris ORourke
The Great Gatsby
Nostalgic for the Future
Enigmatic, nouveau riche, hopeless romantic, Jay Gatsby might once have been a farm boy, killed a man, or even attended Oxford. Now, swimming in success, Gatsby hosts weekly parties for the privileged where the fashionable simply have to be seen. Jay Gatsby, poster boy for the American dream, is a self-made man who has everything he could possibly want. Except for the things that really matter and the one thing he wants most of all. In what is one of the most eagerly anticipated productions of the year, Selina Cartmell’s inaugural production for her Outsider season sees F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920’s playboy take to the Gate Theatre for a two month run. Or, to be more precise, take over the Gate Theatre, with the Gate’s iconic space being transformed into Gatsby’s opulent mansion. Immersive from the moment you ascend the theatre steps, “The Great Gatsby” is a stirring experience that honours The Gate’s past as well as embracing its future. Theatrical in the extreme, “The Great Gatsby” serves up a heady cocktail of delicious decadence, a party overflowing with music, dancing, singing and drama, in a production as brave and bold as it is breathtakingly brilliant.
In “The Great Gatsby,” beneath the glitz and glamour of 1920’s, post war America lies a world of dreams, decadence and debauchery. A jazz age of bright young things where a girl can dream of Broadway and riches and a guy can dream of a girl. All you need is to know the right people or have enough money to get you there. As dapper dancers Charleston whilst fabulous flappers sip champagne, everyone eats, drinks, and convinces themselves they’re merry. None more so than high class, socialite couple, Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Tom’s affair with the socially ambitious Myrtle might rankle Daisy, but Daisy’s a woman with her own secrets and past. A past that comes calling when an old friend, Nick Carraway, looking to improve his lot in life, introduces Daisy to his new neighbour, the fashionably wealthy Jay Gatsby. Sparks fly as old flames reignite, but promises that fan flames in the bedroom can prove to be insubstantial outside of it. When choices are called for between true love and true money, the house wins every time. In the end, when tragedy finally calls for payment, the working man and the nouveau riche can foot the bill. The real money moves the party on elsewhere.
Director Alexander Wright’s transformation of a real theatre into a fake mansion underscores his exploration of a phoney, glamourous world of appearances and the reality underneath. Under Wright’s masterfully direction the fractured world of “The Great Gatsby” offers multiple, fragmented perspectives from which to engage with the Gatsby experience. Not just homage to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, nor just a work of relevant, social commentary, “The Great Gatsby” is always questioning theatre itself, the greatest phoney of them all, forever lying in the service of truth. In “The Great Gatsby” the audience are repositioned from removed spectator to part participant, creating the spectacle as it unfolds. Enjoying direct, immersive engagement with the cast, they make individual choices that inform the narrative in the reimagined Gate. This marriage of spectacle with intimacy, cast and audience, in the visually transformed space, opens up fresh possibilities for engagement and re-engagement with the novel, with theatre, and with the venue itself.
If having read the novel is not essential, it’s certainly beneficial, for Wright’s “The Great Gatsby” is never constrained by, or enclosed within, the novel’s narrative frame. Even so, Wright is determined to honour the novel and all its ingredients, including narrative, backstory, exposition, language and context, without ever being limited by them. With the inclusion of songs like Benny Goodman’s version of Sing Sing Sing (1937), and Otis Redding’s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (1965) Wright’s warping of the context heightens contemporary relevance. His fractured perspectives, with their real, imagined, and re-appropriated elements open up fresh interpretive arrangements and rearrangements.
Yet it’s an approach that has its own inherent risks, and can give the experience a sense of weight and confusion at times. For, depending on which routes you choose, you can end up with radically different perceptions and experiences. Scenes such as the party within the party, where Tom and Myrtle step out for a quickie leaving Carraway to regale the guests, keeps narrative focus on events and characters. In contrast, a game of blackjack played in a Speakeasy with Wolfsheim, while the wannabe superstar, Kitty Collins, playfully coos My Heart Belongs To Daddy, doesn't add much to narrative flow, but deepens the richness of the experience. If, ultimately, this leads to a sense of dislocation at the end, that's perfectly okay. You were never going to know the full story anyway, never going to see all sides of it. You're were always going to be left with that nagging stone in your shoe wondering what am I not seeing, what did I not get to hear?
All of which is informed by a sumptuous lighting and set design by Ciaran Bagnall, so rich and meticulously detailed, from multi-coloured, dimming chandeliers to anti-prohibition wall signs, it must surely make Bagnall a bankable contender for a designer of the year nomination. Top class work by choreographer Muirne Bloomer, and costume designer, Peter O’Brien, add finishing touches to “The Great Gatsby’s” 1920’s party atmosphere. An extraordinary ensemble performance, with accents as thick as apple pie, sees Raymond Scannell as the photographer McKee, Rachel O’Byrne as Carraway’s love interest, Jordan Baker, and Owen Roe as the suspicious Wolfsheim all turning in terrific performances. Kate Gilmore as the vivacious Kitty, a chirpy, cheerful flapper with a burning desire to be a Ziegfeld Follie, proves, yet again, why she is deservedly touted as one of Ireland’s rising stars. As does Gerard Kelly as George Wilson, a good guy driven to bad deeds, in a wonderfully compelling performance. Paul Mescal carries the burden of the troubled Gatsby with ease and confidence, exhibiting a strong chemistry with Charlene McKenna as the wild yet vulnerable Daisy Buchanan, with McKenna being irresistibly convincing as a conflicted woman desired by two men. Mark Huberman as her unfaithful husband, Tom Buchanan, is riveting throughout, as is Aoibhéann McCann as the feisty and fiercely tempestuous, Myrtle. Marty Rea as the out of place Carraway is utterly compelling, ensuring that even the most verbose of narrative passages never stops the flow.
In “The Great Gatsby,” social commentary and theatrical interrogation never lose sight of the heart and soul characters at the centre of Fitzgerald’s novel, and scenes pulsate with their direct, emotional honesty. If its famous last line imagines us borne back ceaselessly into the past, its real tragedy seems to lie in our being stuck in our nostalgia for a promised future that never arrived, revealing its ultimate contemporary significance. The big break on Broadway that never happened, the good life promised for those who work hard for it, a first love that should have been the last and only love; the list of broken dreams is endless. A searing commentary on the American dream, “The Great Gatsby” never loses sight of the dreamers, for whom there’s always a party they can go drown themselves in. With its tragedy tempered by all the fun and frivolity of a Charleston, “The Great Gatsby” is a theatrical triumph, revealing Cartmell as a shrewd operator. For one of the most noticeable aspects of Gatsby’s party is the presence of new faces. Not just the young, but right across the board. People checking out the party, a fresh audience, singing, dancing, and swishing cocktails. And who can blame them. It’s the only place to be seen. For the Gate’s Gatsby throws the best party in town.
“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, directed by Alexander Wright, runs at The Gate Theatre until September 26th
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre