As a rule, nothing is ever as good as the book. Tackling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, possibly the great American novel, and filling the shoes of some of literature’s most eminent characters is no small task. One need only look back as recently as Baz Luhrmann’s over-produced, over-hyped, and ultimately disappointing 2013 screen adaptation to see how easy it is to miss the mark. What all the money of Hollywood failed to do, director Ron Jenkins and The Saint John Theatre Company manage to pull off beautifully.
As the saying goes: behind every great man is a great woman, but in reality, that woman might be years behind, or just ahead, almost within reach. For the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, that woman occupies both places simultaneously in the person of Daisy Buchanan. Unfortunately both are deeply flawed characters, bringing the aspect of greatness into question, but which of us hasn’t aspired to build an empire, to move mountains, to win over the person of our dreams?
Tragic in the style of Macbeth; Gatsby amasses his fortune as an upscale bootlegger during prohibition, hoping the ends justify the means, or perhaps to be vindicated by history, but is just as likely indifferent to his own immorality. Even Nick Carraway, our guide and narrator, describes Gatsby as someone possessing undeniable charm, and yet ‘represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn’. A self-made man, in more sense than one, he has constructed an elaborate lady-trap in the hopes of attracting the attention of his pre-war sweetheart, who has moved on and married for money. Gatsby is as controversial and complex character as can ever be imagined.
In the titular role, Scott Thomas has had immense shoes to fill. As an impossibly confident character, who only begins to wilt as they step out from behind their façade to confront their true goals, Thomas hasn’t quite risen to the level of Jon Hamm (but neither could DiCaprio). To call him adequate is no insult when it comes to the iconic Gatsby.
Tyler MacLennan stands out in his role as Nick Carraway. He outshines even the charismatic Gatsby as we watch his innocence slowly crumble away while he’s being immersed into life at West Egg. As a (relatively) young man, he’s made his way East to make his fortune in the bond business, and gets drawn into the complex love affair between his neighbour Gatsby, and his second cousin Daisy. Guiding us along the path to dejection, we’re disillusioned with the decadence of the 1920’s as he experiences petty tragedies right down to the relative nonchalance of death.
Pippa Wennberg does a remarkable job of playing Jordan Baker, rather unexpectedly filling the role of a personal literary crush, however flawed. Neil Bonner does marvellously as the obnoxious Tom Buchanan, embodying a fusion of Pete Campbell and Frank Burns to the point of being perfectly insufferable. Daisy Buchanan is portrayed as a charming but tragic fool by Christina Isbill.
What really makes the performance enjoyable for anyone already familiar with the story is the cast of secondary characters, and chorus. In particular, Matt Hamilton Snow as photographer Chester McKee gets a laugh with nearly every line and gesture. The full stage feels like a proper party. The set is beautifully dressed with imaginative, almost mercurial scene changes that seem to happen in the blink of an eye.
With only a few hiccups, and the occasional awkward beat (most noticeably the long pause as we all held our breath in anticipation of the notoriously unreliable car) it’s an excellent production, wholly entertaining, and on a scale that doesn’t overly glorify the excesses of the era. Where Baz Luhrmann’s film can be defined as little more than an orgy of cool, SJTC’s Gatsby nails the story.