Posted by: stelladuffy | June 21, 2012

GATZ and the tell-not-show.

We saw GATZ yesterday. The full almost-nine-hours of it (with a dinner break!). And I really liked most of it and loved some of it. So I’ve been trying to work out why – I don’t, as a rule, tend to jump at booking myself in for very long plays. I approach them with trepidation and uncertainty.
I booked for this because Nick Sweeting, who produces Improbable, and who I’ve known and loved for years, also produces with LIFT, and he was raving about this show they were bringing over – GATZ. And I trust Nick and I thought the idea was interesting so I bought us tickets.

I’m glad I did, but actually, I wonder if the main reason I liked it so much was because of what was NOT there, rather than what was.

What was is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a brilliant (slightly unreliable) narrator, some stunning language, wonderfully adept writing (it’s a first person narrator! who hands over the narration to Jordan Baker so she can tell us something he doesn’t know!) – and all of that is entirely left intact in GATZ. All of it.

But what wasn’t there were all of my own theatre bugbears, and not one of them in evidence :
Acting – there was no acting. There was stillness and calm and quiet moments and elegance and peace and comedy and no-one showing us how very well they were inhabiting a character. It was all being and not acting. Love that.
Design – everything about the design (lighting, sound, set, costume) supported the story, not the other way round. None of those elements stood out other than as being totally there for the piece, none of those elements needed a curtain call of their own, they were there for the story.
Sound – that said, sound does deserve a special mention, because it was so relevant and so a part of the piece (and put on stage to acknowledge that) – but integrated and supportive. Again, supporting the story.
Direction – you never know how these things came about in the rehearsal room, but two main points the wife and I noticed, when the narration mentioned sound, we (audience) heard that sound BEFORE it was read out. When the narration mentioned acting, the performers did that bit AFTER the relevant piece was read. (Yes, there may be conflicting moments I didn’t notice, but on the whole that was what I noticed.) And I loved those choices, very clean and clear and very specific choices. Perhaps not even the ‘natural’ choice but, again, it put the story first.

And so here’s the thing, the nub of it – I love story. It’s why I do what I do (write books, stories, make theatre). And what I loved about GATZ is that it put STORY first. It gave story primacy. And I honestly think that’s what all theatre/writing work should strive for. It’s certainly what I strive for (and no, of course I don’t always achieve it!) – and by story I don’t mean plot or narrative, I mean story, the guts of what drives a thing, the ineffable, intangible, stuff that pulls us along.

The other thing – “show don’t tell” is an over-used, over-extended, much misunderstood maxim. The Greeks knew only too well that told brilliantly a piece could have far more power than showing. (The messenger telling us Medea has killed her children is more painful and effective than showing an actor ‘killing’ her children on stage could ever be.) And GATZ really showed (!) that telling – done well – can be astonishingly powerful.

Though of course, the question that playwright wife asked at the first interval was … who’s ever going to be brave enough to let us make work like that??!!

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