Roaring jazz, endlessly flowing champagne, raucous dancing into the early hours. This is the glittering excess of Jay Gatsby’s world, the titular tycoon with a dark secret at the heart of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s revered 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby. Narrated by naïve Yale graduate Nick Carraway, the book exposes the failures of the American dream: exploring the harsh social and economic divisions in 1920s American society, the corruptive power of desire, and the seductive allure of wealth and power. Over the years, Gatsby has inspired various adaptations ranging from radio plays, opera and ballet to video games and cinema. Simon Levey’s 2006 play brought the tale back into theatres after an 80-year hiatus, and it is his script which was used in last week’s much-anticipated student production of The Great Gatsby.
It is clear that director Madison Hauser had a very specific vision of the play, and her love for the text shone through in her direction: the characters and their relationships with each other were carefully crafted, the emotional beats were executed well, and dramatic moments were pulled off with panache (Myrtle’s death is a standout). Similarly, the cast do an excellent job: Seb Bridges intelligently captures Nick’s growing disillusionment with society (and his friends) as the play progresses, and Daniel Jonauses is suave and charming as the enigmatic Gatsby. I was particularly impressed by his approach to capturing the character’s voice, as his performance blends a non-specific American accent with touches of English, heightening the mysteriousness of his character. However, I ultimately felt that perhaps his interpretation of the role echoed a little too closely Leonardo DiCaprio’s in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film, and would have liked to have seen a slightly more unconventional portrayal. Playing opposite him was Clemmie Beresford in the role of Daisy, a woman with whom Gatsby falls in love with as a young man, but who then marries Nick’s wealthy university friend, Tom Buchannan. The delivery of this role was nuanced and original, with moments of near-hysteria breaking through the character’s façade providing particular depth to her character. A special mention must be given to Morgan Corby, who plays her adulterous husband (Tom Buchanan) with a brooding physicality that silently communicates the character’s latent anger and potential for violence. Unlike the rest of the cast, this role was performed in a haughty English accent, revealing the character’s upper-class snobbery. Tom’s affair with Myrtle (the excellent Annabel Steele) was particularly well realised, as their convincing chemistry was combined with bitter arguments, displaying the turbulence of the relationship.
Anna Tumblety’s costumes worn throughout the play were bold and eye-catching (I loved the pink three-piece suit worn by Gatsby at the start of the second half) and helped to invoke the opulent world which Gatsby inhabits, whilst the clothes also seemed to foreshadow future events and revealed aspects of the characters. Similarly, great thought had evidently been invested in the set design: the eyes of Doctor T J Eckleburg watch over the play on an advertisement board, showing how capitalism worships money instead of God, whilst the fact that the play is a written account by Nick Carraway is implied through the inclusion of typed sheets of paper strung across the backdrop. At the sides of the stage, an assortment of luxury household items were placed, discarded and broken on the floor, evoking simultaneously a sense of the decadence and moral decay of the extravagant lifestyles depicted, whilst also recalling Dutch Vanitas paintings which often served as memento moris, underlining the play’s themes of the cruelty and fleeting nature of life and youth.
However, despite the talent and dedication of the cast and crew, the production was weighed down by the flawed sound system employed. As the play deals with extravagant parties, the staging of it in the Union’s Club 601 seemed appropriate, providing the opportunity for the play to evoke the drunken excess and revelry of Gatsby’s parties through the booming speakers and lighting. Sadly, this equipment was not taken advantage of. Instead, music seemed to issue from just one of the speakers, a distracting set-up which meant that audiences heard all of the music from only one side. Similarly, the sound effects used during the deaths of several characters cut out abruptly, distancing me from the action performed on the stage. Similarly, I felt that the Gatsby parties were underwhelmingly staged, as, with the exception of the second-half’s opening sequence, very little actual celebration was seen and, due to the relatively small cast, the spectacle of the events was missing.
To conclude, I would say that whilst flawed, this production of Gatsby had great ambition and excellent performances, and was only partly let down by technical issues.