The Guild of Misrule’s immersive adaptation The Great Gatsby is still going strong a year for very good reasons. Far more than a novelty, it’s an outstanding theatrical experience unlike anything else you’ll see.
Like any festival, the Vault Festival has its share of hits and misses, but you’ll struggle to name a bigger hit than The Great Gatsby. For six weeks in 2017, the already eclectic crowd was joined by an assortment of dashing chaps and jitterbugs queuing for an immersive production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. With the entire run selling out weeks ahead, it was soon back by popular demand for one month only in June. Then one month turned into another month, then the rest of 2017, and now it’s still running whilst Vault 2018 goes on.
It’s not too surprising that a production like this is running for long, especially in London where there’s a market for just about every niche imaginable. (And come on, who doesn’t want to join a hedonistic 1920s party in their favourite jitterbug dress?) What is surprising is just how immersive this is. Usually “immersive” theatre is a promenade performance, maybe a bit of audience interaction, but without these bells and whistles it’s still structurally a conventional play. The Guild of Misrule’s adaptation, however, is so much more.
It begins exactly how you’d expect though. After assembling in Gatsby’s drugstore (i.e. front for drinking joint, duh, it’s Prohibition remember), we are brought into one of Mr. Gatsby’s parties. Don’t know how to dance the Charleston? Not to worry, you will be getting a crash course in it very soon. This, as any Fitzgerald fan can tell you, is one of the many lavish parties from Jay Gatsby, a millionaire who made his fortune in the “drug store” “trade”. But Jay Gatsby’s mission in life isn’t to become rich, or to buy his way into high society. That is merely a means to an end. His one goal is to win back Daisy Fay, the woman he always loved. But Daisy Fay is Daisy Buchanan, and a love-triangle looms, or a love pentagon when you factor in her husband’s indiscretions. But Gatsby won’t settle for a future with Daisy – he wants her past too. And that will be his undoing.
The immersive nature is a challenge. In immersive production like this is going to be light hearted – of course it will, you can’t expect an audience who’s dressed to impress to stand stony-faced through one of Gatsby’s parties. But this story unfolds into sentiment, romance, and finally tragedy. The last thing you want is the audience laughing those bits. The Guild of Misrule, however, rose to this challenge by embracing it. There is a lot a audience interaction over the two hours, and random punters suddenly find themselves in roles of servants, mechanics or the notorious guest who drank himself unconscious at the last party. There is a little of piss-taking for anyone who turns up in casual clothes, but only a little. Throughout the production, they manage it well, bringing in people who want to be part of it but never embarrassing anyone who doesn’t. And this bold approach works – when the serious moments come, the laughs stop and the story plays out the way it should. Even though almost everything is played out with a crowd of people in the scene, it never loses the mood fitting of the novel.
Except this play is more than the novel. That is told as the story of Nick Carraway, a vital pawn in Gatsby’s quest for his beloved Daisy, and in this respect, the play is very faithful to Nick’s story. But – and this is in ingenious touch that changes this from a fun theatre to an outstanding theatre – this production is more than Nick’s story. It’s everybody’s story. Throughout the play, the audience keeps splitting up and regrouping, taken to difference scenes containing different characters in the same story. One moment, you may be seeing an intimate moment in the brief romance between Nick and Jordan, faithful to the book – another moment, you might see a row between Myrtle and George over a hare-brain scheme George has to get rich quick selling cars that drives her into the arms of loverat Tom Buchanan, new to this adaptation. The new material and original material fuse together seamlessly, and whatever scenes you see, it comes together to tell the same story through a new lens. You could see this play several times and have a different experience each time.
I have only fault to pick with this: I wouldn’t have used obviously contemporary music in the play. I’ll let the Guild of Misrule off for the use of Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing (with a Swing) even though that was released in 1937, twelve years after the use of the book, but I’m not convinced you can excuse 2015 electro-swing from Caravan Palace*, or any of the modern non-jazz numbers. This is a matter of personal taste more than anything, but that felt a bit too much like try to be Baz Luhrman. Genius though Baz is, the Guild of Misrule are easily individual enough not need to do that. With so much fantastic music from the Gatsby era on offer, I’m sure there was a lot of fitting music that could have been done.
(* That said I do love Lone Digger, which is one of my favourite “What the fuck did I just watch?” pop videos. If some cartoon cats ever turn up whilst this music is playing and ask what species the lap-dancer is, you know it’s not going to end well.)
But that niggle pales into insignificance against a momentous achievement. It takes a lot of skill to run a play as an immersive production, or split audiences whilst a production runs, or add new material to a classic story, or create a multi-pathed play that makes sense whichever path you use, or keeping interaction with audience under control, but the Guild of Misrule does it all Even things invisible to the audience such as sending actors and punters to the right room at the right to must be a staggeringly complex operation. And yet they make it seem so easy. The long run of this show makes it possibly the Vault Festival’s biggest success story, but there’s far more to its success than the novelty of an immersive performance. It’s bold, innovative, and yet has wide appeal and is worth every penny. Even as I write this, it’s been extended yet again to July. Never mind a London trip to see a West End Show. This is the thing you’ve got to see.