If personality is a series of incredible rooms, well-placed scenes and good performers, then there was something gorgeous about this production. The immersive Great Gatsby at Castle Howard by Alexander Flanagan Wright (The Guild of Misrule) was an excellent, if not a little disorienting experience of theatre.
For those not privy to the plot of F Scott Fitzgerald’s roaring book, The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920’s US and is all about Jay Gatsby (Oliver Towse), who’s caught in an extra-marital love triangle as he tries to woo Daisy (Amie Burns Walker). Friend of both, Nick (Mark Donald) serves as the narrator. Daisy’s husband Tom (Cornelius Geaney Jnr), Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Casey Jay Andrews), George (Phil Grainger) and Daisy’s friend Jordan (Zoe Hakin) make up the rest of the seven-hander cast.
The play’s immersive nature meant you were constantly in and amongst the action. The best example of this is the opening. The audience were gathered around Gatsby’s bar. My friends and I had grabbed a drink and were chatting inside. Almost everyone was wearing 1920’s outfits as the ticket had requested. A man entered but blended in and began chatting to someone nearby. That conversation got increasingly louder until everyone quietened and it became clear that this was Nick.
He was beginning the monologue from the start of the novel. As he spoke he addressed himself to the room and moved around the space, nodding to people and making occasional asides – ‘You doin’ alright?’. His speech got onto the topic of Gatsby’s parties and we were led into the middle of a grand hall with music playing and people dancing and chatting. As the chaos of an actual party occurred around us, the stage was set.
One of the play’s biggest strengths was how it dealt with those crucial initial scenes. You weren’t sure who was or wasn’t part of the play and so every interaction was made significant. Only when the main cast began doing the Charleston in the middle of the hall, synchronised and clearly loving it, did it begin to become clear who the characters were.
Various members of the audience were even given little extra roles to play, like someone who choose Daisy’s dress or delivered a message to Gatsby. These were subtle and added to that air of mystery. There was class and excellent planning from the Guild of Misrule team.
The play’s limitations lay in how the audience was controlled. The different characters came and went through various parts of the house, often choosing audience members to go with them. With a minute gap as people chose which characters to follow, it was pretty disorienting. I wish I’d realised earlier on just how free we were to go where we wanted. Often a little confused by a scene change, I’d remain in the main hall for a few scenes and feel that I’d missed out on a different scene. Grainger (George) gently told us in his American drawl, we could ‘stay or go’, and more direction like that would’ve improved the experience.
Some of the storyline was stretched a little too thin. Myrtle and George were given long scenes which made me feel that I’d missed out on more action with other characters. Getting stuck in the sub-par scenes was awkward rather than engaging. It’s a marvel that whenever Nick was there, he gave voice to the audience and reaffirmed the party guest role we played, even when quite intense crescendos were afoot.
Ultimately, The Great Gatsby was an immersive triumph. I would jump to see more immersive theatre like this, and I’m sure with more tweaking of the scene changes, future work will be even grander.
The Great Gatsby at Castle Howard, ran from 11th July to 15th July 2018.