John Collins on directing GATZ and how this production came to be. 

PF | What attracted you the idea of staging The Great Gatsby?

JC | It was a novel set in early 20th-century New York City and that was the original attraction. I read the book for the first time in 1999 and Steve Bodow and I recognised a parallel between the reckless exuberance and abundance of new money in the 1920s. It was the height of the dot-com boom and the New York of 1999 was looking a lot like the New York of 1925.

I became very interested in staging it because I fell in love with Fitzgerald’s style of writing. The book was so lyrical and yet so efficient. It seemed as though he hadn’t wasted a single word.

PF | At what point did you decide that you would not adapt the book for the stage but use every word of Fitzgerald’s text?

JC | At first, we did set out to adapt it, but even at an early stage, cutting narration felt problematic. Fitzgerald’s observations of the characters (through Nick, the narrator) were so concise and witty that I immediately felt an impulse to keep them. Fortunately, with a first person narrator in the middle of all the scenes we were working on, the rationale was built in – narration could be spoken by the actor playing Nick.

But once we decided to include some narration a nagging question still hung in the air – How do we decide what narration stays and what narration gets cut? Clearly Fitzgerald had made careful decisions about how to order his prose, when to interrupt dialogue with narration and when to let it flow from one speaker to another. The novel struck me as perfectly constructed and furthermore, it was the writing itself – not the characters or the story – that I wanted to put on stage.

Finally, almost out of frustration, I proposed that we not cut any narration.

The audacity of the idea was irresistible. I had come to realize that having a good problem to solve was the best starting point for me as a director and for this new piece. I guessed already then that there would be something compelling for audiences in the commitment that this represented and it was a great challenge for the company.

PF | How did you approach such a monumental task?

JC | I got together with Scott Shepherd, who had played Nick in the workshop, and James Urbaniak, who had played Gatsby, to experiment with the novel in our spare time. We used a small office as a kind of found set. It opened into a larger room so I could sit in the larger room and the opening into the smaller office became an impromptu proscenium. The office provided a wonderfully cluttered and richly detailed setting and I imagined that Scott and James were its employees. Scott’s character, we decided, would have an unusual obsession with reading The Great Gatsby aloud. We staged scenes of James coming in and catching him reading when he was supposed to be working. We decided that James (whose character would be Scott’s character’s boss) would occasionally decide to join the game and become other characters. Watching this happen against the backdrop of this cluttered little office was exciting and I began to realise that if the purpose of the business they were conducting was mysterious, the office could become a charged and meaningful space.

I wanted to see Scott’s character come to work and find a reason to start reading. That led to the idea of his computer not working properly. Once he discovered the book, he would still get interrupted with odd little work tasks from time to time; but these were second nature to him and his primary focus would be on a ragged copy of The Great Gatsby he’d found in his desk. We cut from Chapter One to Chapter Four and had James’ character interrupt Scott’s reading by suddenly demanding in Gatsby’s words, ‘Look here, old sport, what’s your opinion of me anyhow?’ By creating a bit of ambiguity – was he speaking as his office character or as Gatsby? – we bridged the world of the novel and the world of our mysterious little office.

PF | What do you think the production gives audiences that they wouldn’t get by reading the book?

JC | What we offer is a parallel experience, an event enriched by the book and one that, hopefully, enriches the book in some small way by bringing it to life. It is a piece about a strange group of people who are temporarily haunted by the novel and its characters; it is not a definitive imagining of the story of the novel. The point of presenting it against such a drab background and of having the book itself present throughout is to preserve the integrity of the novel. We’re not offering, as some would, an ‘official stage version’ of this great work. We are staging an encounter with it.

I want the audience to experience how each of these forms, live performance and novel-writing, are distinct and irreplaceable. I mean to create an experience of the two colliding in real time and space and I don’t imagine that one comes out on top. Rather, I see them playing to a friendly draw, with each illuminating the other in the process.

GATZ is happening from 1 -3 March.