What if an actor proposed to read aloud, over eight hours, every word of a novel—in this case The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald?
Oh no, you would think, am I going to be bored to tears? Surely the written word needs to be absorbed slowly and quietly, at one’s own pace—the imagined world coming to life in your head, not on the stage.
But long-form reading is under siege. The multitasking generation flits between different media and neuroscientists predict our very brains will cease to develop along reflective lines as we potentially abandon this quiet form of entertainment.
And then there is Gatz—conceived by the Elevator Repair Service (an independent theatre company), brought to the UK by LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre), who interestingly took a massive fiscal gamble by staging this at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End; a visionary gamble from a small Arts Council-funded organisation.
The play begins in a rundown office with Scott Shepherd playing Nick Carraway, our narrator, reading almost incomprehensibly from a tattered copy of the book.
Other office members arrive and become part of the story, taking on the characters. After several hours they begin to say some of their lines, all faithful to the book. The reading monologue gradually becomes a drama with multiple characters.
After two 15-minute intervals and one break for dinner, the play picks up pace again to its frenetic denouement. I was never bored, totally captivated along with the rest of the audience and leapt to my feet at the end to join the standing ovation.
And why should every publisher immediately acquire tickets? Because the play is a conundrum. It is long-form reading with a dash of drama, experienced directly by the individual but in the context of an audience, aware of the staging and each other’s reactions as with any play.
I continue to marvel at this conundrum. I have never experienced anything like it but I know it says something important and profound about the novel and how it can be experienced in new and innovative ways without compromising its integrity as an intense, personal and reflective art form.
At the end of the eight-hour play I longed to do the most unexpected thing—to re-read The Great Gatsby.
For more about long-form reading, see Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! edited by Frances Macmillan (Vintage). The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald is published by Vintage Classics.