16 August 2010

"The spirit of the novel": The Great Gatsby

Popular Victoria University professor David O’Donnell is the director at the helm of the current Circa hit, The Great Gatsby. David takes some time to tell drama on the waterfront all about his work on this adaptation of an iconic story.

DOTW: What can you tell us about Ken Duncum’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel?

DOD: Ken wanted to adapt Gatsby for the stage because he has a great passion for the novel and felt that there hadn’t been a satisfactory dramatization of it. I think he also wanted to have a go at adapting a literary work for theatre as this was a technical challenge that he hadn’t tackled before. He made some strong decisions which I fully agree with: to separate the role of the narrator, Nick Carraway, into two roles: the older man narrating the story looking back into the past, and the younger man living through the story before our eyes. The narration of the Older Nick allows the beauty and power of the language of the novel to come through in performance. Sometimes the words tell the story for us, other times the action does it. He also wanted an ensemble cast to play multiple characters. This ensemble approach makes all of the actors very focused on group storytelling, taking responsibility for the whole story, rather than just concentrating on their one character. He also wanted to bring the ‘20s era to life for the audience by including musical dance numbers. I love the theatricality of this adaptation, and the fact that it goes into so many different performance modes: monologue, naturalism, musical, comedy, silent movie slapstick, expressionism, dance, etc.

DOTW: What was it about this story that made you want to direct it?

DOD: Even though Gatsby was written in 1924 it seems to have an enormous relevance now. The freedom and excesses of the 1920s preceded the Wall St Crash that created the Great Depression. We’ve just been through a similar boom and bust cycle with American finance people creating another worldwide recession. Gatsby was written before the USA came to dominate world politics but there’s a powerful sense of that American confidence at the same time that Nick Carraway’s increasing disillusionment with the hypocrisy of the wealthy and powerful suggests the demise of the American Dream. Much of what Fitzgerald wrote seems prophetic in terms of world politics.

At the same time that Gatsby works on a global, political level, it also has huge resonance as a personal story about love and the elusive pursuit of happiness. The characters still seem dynamic and original, full of quirks and contradictions that make them very human as well as very memorable. 

David O'Donnell

DOTW: What is the most challenging part of directing this play? Do the expectations of an audience who are likely familiar with – and possibly fans of – the novel add any extra pressure?

DOD: It has been challenging to direct a play set in a multitude of different locations, with many scenes on phones, in cars, restaurants, etc. So with the designers we’ve worked on suggesting the world of New York in the twenties without re-creating it literally. Theatre works best when the audience have to use their imagination, as in the Elizabethan theatre, so I hope that audiences will appreciate the work the actors do to help us imagine the worlds in the play.

This has also been quite a massive collaborative project, with a lot of people behind the scenes. Brian King has designed a monumental set based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s twenties architecture, and with Jane Boocock designed the beautiful, detailed costumes which are so much a part of bringing the twenties alive. Lisa Maule creates a lot of the mood with her complex lighting, operated by Issac Heron who is my hero for mastering so many cues so quickly. Michael Williams is responsible for the singing and music, and also composed a big showstopping number especially for this play, while the soundscapes are created by Stephen Gallagher, taking time out from working in the film industry. And with so much movement in the show, Sacha Copland has been a godsend as choreographer, creating a movement language for the show that does so much to re-create the era. So it’s been a challenge bringing all of these different elements together. For this I have to thank our stage manager Ellen Walsh, who has had a massive management job to cohere the production and make it run smoothly each night.

The audience expectations are daunting, but I know that Ken’s adaptation is completely true to the spirit of the novel, and my aim as director has been to honour his intentions throughout.

DOTW: What can you tell us about the cast?

DOD: We have an exciting range of experience in this cast, from Ray Henwood, a veteran actor who was one of the founders of Circa Theatre, to Guy Langford, freshly graduated from Toi Whakaari. I like the fact that the oldest and youngest members of the cast are playing the same role, giving us a span of experience that hopefully everyone in the audience can relate to! I am also excited about working with Danny Mulheron again, as he is a hugely experienced actor, director and writer who brings a wealth of skills to playing a whole range of roles as well as being our very talented pianist! Jessica Robinson (Myrtle) and Erin Banks (Jordan) play very different women, but both invest them with real passion and truth, while Paul Harrop has pulled off the difficult job of bringing integrity to the performance of an unsympathetic character. I have to tell you that these actors have worked incredibly hard on this show, the rehearsal room floor is stained with their blood, sweat and tears. They have had to train relentlessly in singing and dancing, movement, perfecting the accents, and all playing a range of highly contrasting roles, switching from realism to broad comedy.

(left to right) Jessica Robinson, Nathan Meister, Paul Harrop, Erin Banks, Miranda Manasiadis. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

DOTW: Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan are iconic literary characters. What can you tell us about Nathan Meister and Miranda Manasiadis’ portrayal?

DOD: Gatsby and Daisy are extremely complex characters, and Nathan and Miranda have brought a combination of intelligence and playfulness to create the layers of characterization mined from Fitzgerald’s detailed writing. Gatsby is viewed by Nick as the only decent person among the rich set, yet he’s also a gangster and Nathan beautifully hints that there’s a more ruthless man behind the smooth façade. Gatsby and Daisy represent this vast, impossible romance, and for me Miranda perfectly catches the desperate gulf between the fantasy of being with the glamourous Gatsby and the reality that she’s in this empty marriage to the philandering Tom yet has so much to lose socially if she leaves him. Even though these characters come from the world of the rich and famous, their dilemmas over love and loss are universal.

DOTW: Has the story changed for you at all as you’ve worked through the rehearsal process? Do you feel you have a different understanding of it now then you did when you first walked into the rehearsal room weeks ago?

DOD: Definitely. Rehearsal is a process of discovery, and my respect for Fitzgerald’s writing and Ken’s adaptation grew by the day. The layers of meaning in the script made it very rewarding to work on, and I hope audiences will reap the same rewards by thinking through the complexities of the story. 

DOTW: The Great Gatsby is a story of “the glamourous façade of the American Dream” of the 1920s – how do you think New Zealand audiences will relate to it?

DOD: Because we are so isolated geographically, I think this encourages New Zealanders to think globally. New Zealanders are great travelers and great readers, and therefore I think will love seeing this classic novel brought to life on stage by a New Zealand writer. We are also fascinated by history, and the twenties is such a vibrant era in terms of fashion, arts and politics that audiences are already lapping this up. The play seems to have a strong appeal to young people, because the twenties fashion and liberation still has a sense of style and cool. 

DOTW: Final thoughts … Is there anything else audiences should know about the Circa Theatre production of The Great Gatsby?

DOD: It’s a great romance with real depth in its themes and highly entertaining, brought to you with great commitment by a top team – book your tickets now!

Tickets are available at the Circa Box Office - call 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.

Vote David O'Donnell for Academic Idol! You don't need to be a Vic student, you just need passion for David O'Donnell! Text 'David O'Donnell for Idol' to 027 CUSTARD or email editor@salient.org.nz

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