Scott Shepherd learned F Scott Fitzgerald's'The Great Gatsby' by heart for this summer's hot theatre ticket, the eight-hour 'Gatz'
On June 8, the unlikeliest Broadway hit since 'Springtime for Hitler' will arrive in London. 'Gatz' is an uncut literary adaptation set in a dowdy office. It has no 'name' actors, no hoofers and a marathon duration of eight hours - including intermissions and a meal break. Arguably it is an even less attractive commercial proposition than a two-hour musical tribute to the Führer, yet it has seduced tough metropolitan audiences and Broadway critics.
In the Elevator Repair Company's groundbreaking production, the main character is a bored office drone called Nick, who comes into work one morning and finds a copy of F Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby' in his Rolodex. He opens it and begins to read. As he falls under its spell, his dreary colleagues seem to morph into its glamorous leading characters - the self-made zillionaire Jay Gatsby, his idle rich rival Tom Buchanan and Daisy, Tom's wife and Gatsby's unattainable object of desire, a girl with a 'voice full of money'. Nick himself is slowly transfigured into the book's narrator Nick Carraway, the lyrical and critical observer of their lavish lives.
'Gatz' doesn't have any big-name actors but it does have two major stars. The first is the book, which it stages in full: F Scott Fitzgerald's hard-boiled love letter to the Jazz Age. The second is the actor who plays Nick, Wooster Group regular Scott Shepherd, who has learned Fitzgerald's entire 49,000-word novel off by heart. 'It helps that it's fairly short,' says Shepherd, in a nonchalant laid-back drawl that you could (and will) listen to all day.
So what do you get out of seeing 'Gatz' that you wouldn't get out of reading 'The Great Gatsby'? 'Humour is a big part of it,' says Shepherd. 'Laughter is social. Live performance has an advantage over the page there and you really feel Fitzgerald's wit at work. But the show - and the book - are constructed so that you move into more tragic territory. When I read a great book I often want to share it and feel frustrated that I can't, except by telling other people to read it after I've finished. To sit together in a room and feel the huge bulk of this achievement in literature move through the day like a great ship - it's a unique opportunity.'
In austere times, the Roaring '20s, for which 'Gatsby' has become stylistic shorthand, seem like perfect escapism. Fitzgerald's novel recently came out of copyright in the UK, prompting a string of London theatre adaptations this year, a speakeasy-style production at Wilton's Music Hall and a musical at the King's Head. Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio will star in Baz Luhrmann's movie adaptation, scheduled for release on Boxing Day. But despite the book's growing popularity and status since the 1950s, 'Gatz' - which is all about the prose, spoken in a resolutely unglamorous setting - is the only adaptation of it that's been a soaraway success.
Ask Shepherd to quote from 'Gatsby' and he can reel off any passage. He offers one from the last chapter, a description of New York as it once was. 'The trees that had made way for Gatsby's house,' he intones, 'had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired.' They are, undeniably, fine words. Take up the challenge of this summer's most talked-about ticket, and you will find 48,950 more where those came from.