Thursday 21 February 2019

Tragic, immortal: Jay Gatsby kicks ass

  • Forget your troubles and plunge into another era this summer, recommends Emer O'Kelly

  • The Great Gatsby, Gate Theatre Dublin

Charlene McKenna as Daisy and Paul Mescal as Gatsby
Charlene McKenna as Daisy and Paul Mescal as Gatsby

Emer O'Kelly

Its like has not been seen in Dublin before. That's certain. We've had musicals a-plenty. We've had quite a few plays with music (most recently Frank McGuinness's country music tour de force at the Abbey). So staging the Jazz Age's most famous literary work requires more than a careful balancing act.

There's probably more music and dancing than dialogue in Alexander Wright's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby at the Gate. The dazzling heroine Daisy Buchanan invites the audience en masse to join in a lesson on how to do the Charleston... and it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, for heaven's sake. And Wright still manages the feat of keeping it a play. But not without a degree of sacrificial butchery...

In some ways (actually a lot of ways) he plays havoc with Fitzgerald's essentially wistful and tragic tale. It would be quite difficult for anyone who has not actually read The Great Gatsby to follow the nuances, as things happen without any seeming context, and a lot of things which should happen, don't. But since the majority of audiences aren't likely to be bothered by lack of literary fidelity, the sheer spectacle and the superb energy and vigour of the playing will be all that matter.

It's not remotely clear that Myrtle Wilson, cheap wife of the embittered and poverty stricken Long Island local petrol pump owner, is actually a full-time kept woman in Tom Buchanan's Manhattan apartment. Unknown, of course, to Daisy Buchanan or initially, to Myrtle's sad husband. (In this version, Wilson is transformed into a bar keeper).

Nor is it made clear that when Myrtle is killed by a recklessly driven yellow roadster, it is the selfish, spoiled, petulant Daisy who is behind the wheel - but that Gatsby, her besotted passenger, is prepared to take the blame if the police come calling.

That knowledge, revealed to Nick Carroway (the narrator, who is in Gatsby's confidence), leads to the pivotal line in the book: "You're worth 10 of them."

The "them" Nick is referring to are the heedless, drink-sodden and above all, rich circle inhabited by the Buchanans. And that's the point: Gatsby, a con-man and crook, is worth 10 of them. But the irony is not even beneath the surface in the Gate production.

A lot of people might think this is pedantry, otherwise known as nit-picking. But it is important, since the title of the show is the name of a timeless and deservedly revered novel. Nonetheless, The Great Gatsby, as directed in what's being called an immersive style by the adaptor, is an unparalleled triumph of style and showmanship.

The auditorium, the backstage facilities, even the rehearsal space are stripped out and utilised by designer Ciaran Bagnall as the convincing habitat of the pleasure-seeking predators at the Gatsby mansion as well as the downbeat and dreary holes inhabited by those who must serve them, legitimately or outside the law, and always in desperation.

From the Gate's own chandeliers (coming magnificently into their own) down to the stores of bootleg liquor, this is an enchantment lost in time.

And costume designer Peter O'Brien, mingling as a Gatsby hanger-on, might well have been personal couturier to the lovely Daisy in his Manhattan atelier, or indeed double-jobbing in a garment district tailor's for the dubiously flashy Jay Gatsby.

But none of it would work without the shroud of authenticity in which the cast wrap everything. Charlene McKenna is a darting, pouting will o' the wisp as Daisy, with Marty Rea's Nick Carroway fascinated and repelled in equal measure as he watches the tragedy unfold.

Paul Mescal makes a suitably enigmatic Gatsby, with Gerard Kelly hurtling between bravado and raging despair as Wilson. Rachel O'Byrne makes a (suitably) slightly sickeningly breezy Jordan Baker, with Aoibheann McCann as the unfortunate Myrtle. (Her costuming is the only slightly false note: not cheap and trashy enough). Mark Huberman goes from dashing dunderhead to crumbling self-knowledge as Tom Buchanan, and Kate Gilmore, Owen Roe and Raymond Scannell give sterling support in minor roles.

Muirne Bloomer is responsible for the stunningly complex choreography, and the original score is composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge. Marc Atkinson is the associate director, and given the breadth of the production, he must take considerable credit for the outcome.

Is this almost overwhelming spectacle a triumph for Selina Cartmell, the Gate's new artistic director? Old Sport, you can bet your last pre-1929 Great Wall Street Crash dollar it is.

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