An eight-hour long play looks set to become one of the most talked-about theatrical events of the year when it comes to London's West Endin June. Gatz sees a cast of 13 perform every word of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby – a premise that sounds indigestible on paper yet has performed around the world to sellout audiences and ecstatic reviews.
The New York Times's chief theatre critic, Ben Brantley, described it as "the most remarkable achievement in theatre not only of this year but the decade".
"We've always had an interest in creating shows that weren't meant for the theatre," said John Collins, director of New York-based theatre company Elevator Repair Service, who first had the idea for the Gatz in the late 90s. "We thought late-90s New York resembled late-20s New York – reckless exuberance and new wealth. But I also got interested in the problem of putting a novel on-stage and I didn't want to bring in a playwright to recraft it because the writing seemed perfect to me."
Instead, Collins decided to set the play in a drab office, where the main character, Nick, finds a copy of The Great Gatsby and starts reading it out, his co-workers slowly turning into Fitzgerald's characters as he becomes increasingly wrapped up in the book's 49,000 words. Collins has read – or heard – the book over 150 times, while Scott Shepherd, who plays Nick, has committed the entire thing to memory.
"There's always a bit more to discover in it," said Collins. "The perspective in the novel has been finessed so beautifully that I still find little literary and poetic gems peep out."
Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia, who is writing a book called Careless People about the events that inspired The Great Gatsby, agrees.
"It is intensely lyrical and poetic, imagistic and synesthetic in its language, which means that even when the plot isn't carrying the story along, there is a richness and rhythm in the language that is immersive," she said. "Its fundamental subject - Gatsby's fatal error in accepting America's message that life's potential can be realised by chasing material success could not be more timely."
Collins's company was "nervous" about the play's length – "before that we hadn't made anything longer than an hour and 15 minutes," he said – and experimented with performing it in two halves on consecutive nights, before realising that audiences were thinner on the second night. "What's rewarding is the totality of the experience," says Collins. "When we do it all in one night we lose nobody."
In London, where it will play as part of the London International Festival of Theatre, Gatz will start at 2pm and finish at 10pm with a 90-minute break for dinner.
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