Not too long ago my partner and I went to see a musical adaptation of The Great Gatsby. This is a book I studied at A Level and like many things you study at school it’s quite close to my heart. So much so actually that I feel a bit precious about it. I’ve already written a prissy post for a friend’s blog about Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming A-List-3D-money-spinning-garishly-ridiculous-looking adaptation.
A musical adaptation, then, is a very, very risky move. So often musicals strip literature to the bare bones of story, sucking out the real substance – things go from being literature to skeletal narrative with some shit songs thrown in (and I like musicals).
Nonetheless, The King’s Head theatre pub has a pretty commendable reputation and independent theatre is always worth supporting so I booked tickets, hoping for the best.
Cutting to the chase, it was very good. The small theatre was heaving and the atmosphere heady – it was a sweltering evening and the humid room channeled the feel of the dog days of a New York summer. The music I found to be very fitting. The Times reviewer said it needed to be truer to the jazz age roots of the work but I found the pieces perfectly measured to the tone and feel of the story.
A small cast made for actors doubling as musicians, and there were fewer of what you might call “showtunes” than in your average musical and much more dialogue. Whole sections were lifted from the novel and this is no bad thing. Fitzgerald’s prose is so poetic and measured, to not use it would be to bastardise the thing.
One of the most striking scenes was Wilson’s descent into murderous madness following Myrtle’s death. The actor sat on stage plucking eerily at a cello describing his suspicions, the notes he played gradually became more unhinged as he did. It was haunting and beautifully directed.
There were no weak performances and, crucially for me, Meyer Wolfsheim’s voice was delivered with the Yiddish inflections that it needed. I still remember 30 minutes before my exam reading passages from the novel entirely in a New York-Jewish accent in order to memorise them. Takes all sorts, I guess.
Crucially, the production stayed true to Fitzgerald’s vision. This was a paired down affair, as one reviewer said, the staging reflected “the sadness behind the parties”. By the looks of it, this adaptation is the perfect antithesis to what Lurhmann’s appears to be – in other words, good.