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Gatz | Elevator Repair Service
Written by lloyd bradford (brad) syke   
Monday, 18 May 2009 19:43
Gatz | Elevator Repair ServiceLeft - (l-r) Scott Shepherd, Jim Fletcher and Lucy Taylor. Cover - (l-r) Jim Fletcher, Scott Shepherd and Lucy Taylor.

The Great Gatsby. No, Gatz isn't, as theatrical pedants have been at pains to point out, a stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, but a reading, of sorts. I've no interest in debating the semantics: Gatz, at around 6 hours duration, is a challenge, for company and punters alike. But New York's oddly-named Elevator Repair Service brings a laidback self-assurance to it, such that, given a couple of hours, it's as if your in your own loungeroom. A couple of hours more and you're right inside the book. By the time a little more time still has elapsed, you could be one of the characters.

From the start, we're inside the dominant, dingy set, of an indiscriminate office, at an indiscriminate time (even the clock's stopped, at 9.40). One thing is clear: it's in a low-rent district and noone who works there cares much for their occupations, though some adopt the pretence of efficiency and responsibility, reflecting a solemn disposition. But one employee (who sports a more laissez-faire approach, in not caring to feign commitment), arriving at work, finds his computer has given up the ghost (in the machine), despite numerous patient reboots. The familiarity of this Microsoft moment brings peals of laughter, so it's an excellent device for 'buying' the empathy of the audience. Happily, everything else on stage follows suit, so the good-natured bribe is redundant.

This character is Nick, effectively the Fitz's first-person narrator, as well bored office worker and Gatz's confidant. So, the office, of no fixed address or point in time (but it's at least the 80s, by the looks of the computer, of not much later, given the typewriter), is the portal to James Gatz' weary world. Gatz, of course, being the title of the piece and Jay Gatsby's real name, one contrived to shield him from the shame, and crime, of an ordinary life; even if his extraordinary lifestyle has brought, or bought him one no less ordinary.

This is all made possible by the discovery of a shaggy, well-thumbed copy of the relevant tome, cunningly concealed in the Roladex. Nick starts reading and, well, can't stop. It's a pretty flimsy pretext, but noone seems to care. Within sentences, Fitzy's fabulous prose, at once economical and rich, has you spellbound and eager for every unfoldment of plot but, especially, character. The pretext is thrown to the wind, along with all theatrical caution, when, after a time, Nick's co-workers begin to surprise him with snippets of dialogue which exactly mimic those of the book's characters; and right on cue. The effect is nothing short of utterly thrilling.

It leads one to fantasise: if the majority of pointless office enclaves (Centrelink; the Rio Tinto board; the EPA taskforce for Camellia Peninsula, et al) were to recreate a great piece of literature, on a regular basis, the potential exists for a cultural revolution. But I digress.

The very considerable (almost unequalled) reputation of ERS has only but been enhanced by this adventurous, richly imaginative, unpretentious and playful production. The cast of 13 is terrific, but Shepherd, as Scott, has to be the hero, for reasons of endurance alone. While I thought I detected a stretch in which he flagged a little (who the hell wouldn't), his rhythm is otherwise upbeat and the tempo just-so as to have you hungering for more. He's not Orson Wells, or Richard Basehart, but anything, or anyone, approaching or resembling The Voice would be wrong. We need his accessibility and the dryness of his delivery is the kissing cousin of FSF's acerbic, cynical style. And, given that he's been involved, so intimately, with the text, for 3 or 4 years solid, we shouldn't be entirely surprised to learn he knows it by heart. (Indeed, he performs much of the denouement sans text.)

As to the last, you'll have to overlook the odd remark and attitude which might tend to betray a rather condescending disposition towards African Americans and Jews are shamelessly cast as malefactors; objects of suspicion and derision. There's no 'irresistible prejudice' in their favour, that's for sure.

John Collins is the enigmatic director (while still at Yale, he directed Alice In Wonderland, in a 9 x 100-foot room, in the steam tunnels under a college dining-hall) who, presumably, has had all the bright ideas for nuance; far too many in which to even begin to indulge here. Suffice to say the gentle, familiar amusement mentioned above, wherein Nick so patiently makes repeated attempts to breathe life back into his computer, is characteristic of the commonplace charm of the piece. The only directorial decision I question is the one which sees Nick fall out of character, to announce, 'we'll take a 15-minute break': I would've much preferred a fade, or cut, to black. I felt ever so slightly duped by the choice.

The author owes ERS a debt of gratitude, methinks, for bringing a great book back to life in a, well, novel way. F. Scott, via Elevator, allows us to disembark amid the unbridled prosperity of the jazz age, the roaring 20s, when prohibition and censoriousness vied with and gave rise to permissiveness and debauchery. A soaring economy was a relief, after the searing tragedy that was WW1. Through the medium of his character, Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald observes the tenor of the times assiduously; even if he did write in Paris. While never resiling from his abiding admiration of wealth, F's rose-coloured spectacles nonetheless sees the vacuousness of genteel North Shore lives with the utmost clarity. In this, of course, Collins' timing shouldn't go, and hasn't gone, unnoticed. Middle-class poverty isn't so much about losing a private health insurance rebate if you're earning well over 200k a year, it's about insidious, incipient atrophy of one's sense of decency and community. In the end, I'm not sure Fitz, (or, at least, Nick) has any more sympathy for the squattocrats, or people more generally, than I: 'it's what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams, that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men'.

The uncompromisingly dishevelled set, by Louisa Thompson, which will render neat-freaks apoplectic, is the perfect setting for apathy, lethargy and resignation, so evident in the office-workers and their Long Island antecedents.

Sound, by Ben Williams, doesn't miss a beat; (even if I was surprised by the inadequacy of one or two recorded effects). He is also a 'bit' player, of numerous characters. And a very fine one, too. Lights, by Mark Barton, were spot-on, to boot.

It ended in sporadic ovation, but it was hard to tell whether this was in pre-meditated deference to the reviews that preceded its Sydney debut, the marathon gauntlet run by cast and crew, or self-congrats for (mostly) not coughing. I guess, though, on any of these bases, it was well in order.

An unfortunate sidelight was the dinner-break, in which the recognisably would-be literati and glitterati jostled and nudged, like well-dressed, lipsticked pigs, or slumdog millionaires, to be first to claim their upmarket 'little lunch'. If you happen to be contemplating or have already embarked upon a sociological thesis, for your PhD, there's a wealth of anecdotal material to bulk it out, at occasions like these, as well as AGNSW openings, where the dazzlingly bejewelled and incontinent clamour for canapes. It's theatre in itself. But not theatre I hanker to see.

At the risk of being petty and churlish, I think I picked the not-so-deliberate mistake: 'portentious', if my ears didn't delude, was uttered twice. As an inventive hybrid of portentous and pretentious, it might well work, but if singularly intended as an adjective of great moment, not quite.

'So we beat on, boats against the current; borne back, ceaselessly, into the past.' This was a night to remember. There are other excerpts still ringing in my ears, like the best of Groucho, Woody, Oscar or Jerry. The sort of thing you vow to use, as a suave salvo, at precisely the right moment, delivered with unapproachable cool. Aha. Do I lie? I think not. 'Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.' Then again, 'I belong to another generation. You sit and discuss your sports and your young ladies. As for me, I'm 50 years old and won't impose myself on you any longer.'

Sydney Opera House in association with Sydney Writers' Festival presents
Elevator Repair Service

Venue: Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
Dates*: 16 - 31 May 2009
Duration: 7 Hours and 35 minutes including 3 intervals (totaling 95 minutes)
Tickets: $72 - $50
Bookings: 9250 7777

*Please note: 21st and 28th May performances are split night packages. Part one is performed on the Thursday and Part 2 on the Friday (22nd or 29th May).

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