When director Alex Wright opened an immersive production of The Great Gatsby in an empty York pub in 2015, the first night saw only seven people roaming over the building’s three floors. This was York’s first taste of immersive theatre. But word that something strange and different was happening in the city got around quickly, and in a twinkling the show was sold out.
F Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American lives, but there certainly are for Wright’s production of The Great Gatsby. It re-opens at Immersive LDN this week, after its aborted return last Autumn in masquerade ball form—complete with masks and social distancing-- just before the second lockdown.
In the last five years Wright has made around 15 different versions of the show, with it popping up in various forms at The Vault Festival, in Sheffield and off-site at Theatr Clwyd in Mold, and at Colab in South London before taking over Immersive LDN-- an old club in Mayfair-- for what prior to the pandemic became the biggest theatrical party in town.
“I’ve never tired of it, you always find something new, something which feels relevant at that moment,” says Wright of the story of Jay Gatsby, the mysterious self-made millionaire who pines for his one true love, Daisy, and who throws legendary parties which are restless, gaudy affairs.
Now with the newspapers and media predicting that as the pandemic recedes (or at least turns to the endemic) we are all going to party like it’s 1922, it looks likely that Gatsby could be one of the winners in an experience-hungry world. You too can dress up and go to the ball and be taught to dance the Charleston by Jay Gatsby himself.
Thousands already have, with the show attracting not just seasoned theatre goers but also new audiences for whom sitting in a theatre has no appeal. When it played in association with Sheffield Theatres and Theatre Clwyd both reported that 60 per cent of the audience had never stepped inside their theatres. That’s gold dust as far as Arts Council data is concerned.
The Great Gatsby in full swing
“The rules of the show are not the rules of traditional theatre,” says Wright, whose entire career has been about making theatre in different spaces and exploring different relationships with audiences. “Instead, we can adapt to what it is that audiences want and need at particular moments in the show, and also to what the story needs at that point.”
Indeed, the trick of this particular version of Gatsby is that not only does it offer everyone a good time, but it also understands the need for good storytelling. More than that, Wright clearly understand the original—perhaps rather more than Baz Luhrmann in his 2013 movie version—which is not a celebration of hedonism but rather a critique of it, and of the carelessness of the rich whose good time comes at a cost for others. It also offers a reminder that there can be no more lonely place on earth than a party where everyone appears to be having a wild time.
“There is a vacuum at the heart of these people’s lives, and they try to fill themselves up with partying,” says Wright. He thinks that after 18 months of pandemic-induced social and personal trauma, people do want to enjoy themselves but “they are also thinking about what is important to them.” He points out that Gatsby is set between the end of WW1 and the flu pandemic and the great crash of 1926.
“These people’s lives are being shaped by post-war capitalism and commercialism, and so are our lives. It’s why it still resonates.”
Delivering this requires particular skills on the part of actors, and perhaps part of the reason for Gatsby’s longevity is that joining the cast is a bit like joining a family. Many of the original cast are still involved in other capacities, as assistant directors or choreographers.
“Doing this show every night requires remarkable bravery from the actors,” says Wright. “You can’t rely on muscle memory because each night is likely to be different. The actors have to be prepared to listen very hard to each other and to the audience and adapt and play. Not everyone can do it, but the ones who can make the show afresh each night. It’s a real joy to watch.”
The Great Gatsby reopens Thursday 16th September 2021. GET YOUR TICKETS HERE