Venue: The Fleeting Arms
“You guys must be pretty sick to be looking for a drugstore at this time of night.”
A man with a harsh New York accent checks our ‘prescription docets’ and leads us, a group of cold, nervous looking individuals dressed in 1920s fashion, down into a shabby-looking bar on the ground floor of The Fleeting Arms. We are served prohibition-style cocktails and wait. After about half an hour of drinking and chatting, a man in the crowd with a strong American accent, gets louder and louder in his banter with a couple of women with feathers in their hair. Soon the whole bar is silent, and as he speaks the opening lines to The Great Gatsby it becomes clear that we are witnessing the introduction of Nick Carraway (Michael Lambourne). He takes more of a character’s role in this production. If anything, there is no real need for a narrator, as it is up to the audience to decide what story they want to be part of.
As we are guided into another bar with a stage and sparkling lights, other characters appear in their own fashions. Jordan Baker (Holly Beasley- Garrigan) sits on the bar discussing the rumours about our host. Tom Buchanan (Thomas Mellar) greets Nick a little too loudly, bowling onlookers out of the way. Daisy (Amie Burns Walker) follows behind, gracefully embedding herself in a nearby conversation. George (Phil Grainger) and Myrtle (Hannah Davies) Wilson run the bar, and Gatsby himself (Oliver Tilner) seems to have been part of the audience all along until he joins in with the charleston that opens the night. All succeed in treading the fine line between standing out, at least partially by way of their strong accents, and blending in with the crowd of the party. Had we not known their significance, they might have seemed incidental to the whole event.
This is the true strength of the production. Almost all sense of actor/audience separation is eliminated, and each and every character is humanised. The whole experience is heady for those who know the story and characters well. To say that the event comprises mostly of standing around, drinking and chatting may seem to be oversimplifying things, but
it’s by and large true.
Much of the first half of the event centres around the ground floor bars. One meets the characters, or is pulled into conversations, then joins them upstairs in smaller rooms to watch and participate in various scenes or developments. I myself banged a gong to celebrate the end of Tom and Myrtle’s (very loud) sexual exploits in the next room while Nick Caraway shook his head in disappointment. Gatsby himself, upon learning that I had some free time, invited me and a few others up to a drawing room to discuss some issues of account management. All this while the sound of music and partying from downstairs drifts up. It offers an unparalleled level of inclusion verging on the voyeuristic — as Gatsby and Daisy dance lovingly up to a bedroom, a few of us followed them and even helped provide excuses to waylay the jealous husband of the latter.
Upon returning to the bar, one might find others who have missed such scenes, still drinking, chatting and putting golf balls into milk cans with Jordan Baker. The incidental nature of the upstairs scenes makes them all the stronger. One starts to feel camaraderie with other audience members, or very real awkwardness upon witnessing significant glances between characters on the dance floor. It also enhances the tragedy — just as in the novel, the show goes on even after the deaths of Myrtle and Gatsby or the violence between Tom and Daisy.
For the bigger scenes, like the aforementioned death or arguments, however, all converge back in the bar. While the audience don’t quite become invisible (I had to comfort a distraught George after Tom rather violently told him to pull himself together), there is a far more ‘theatre in the round’ feel that I suspect many may be more comfortable with. There is no getting away from the fact that confidence and a repression of inhibitions are necessary in order to get a full experience, and even then there was a nagging feeling that I’d always be missing something.
If The Great Gatsby has an issue, this is it. It demands not only the knowledge but also the participation of the audience if it is to be in any way whole. For those less confident or unfamiliar with the plot, it’s rather an expensive night of drinking. For those who do fit the profile, however, The Great Gatsby offers an unique way to immerse oneself in an unfamiliar world, and feel, rather than merely witness, the failure of the characters and the American Dream.