The Great Gatsby
Choreography by David Nixon, based on the novel by F Scott Fitzgerald
Leeds Grand Theatre
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The Great Gatsby is one of those rare great novels that inspire passionate devotion in readers and critics alike. So beloved is F Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of love, hedonism, and insuperable class barriers in Jazz Age New York, it’s surprising to learn that the book flopped when it was first published in 1925, and only became a candidate for the illusory title of “The Great American Novel” when it was rediscovered decades later.
Ten years after it was first performed, Northern Ballet has chosen to revive its reimagining of The Great Gatsby. The company has a long history of adapting literary classics to the stage—I still have vivid memories of their spellbinding Jane Eyre, choreographed by Cathy Marston—and this production contains the storytelling clarity that enriches their best work.
The central focus of both the novel and the ballet is the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (Joseph Taylor), who has bought a palatial mansion on Long Island where he holds a series of riotous, drink-fuelled parties. It soon becomes clear, however, that he has moved there in order to regain the heart of Daisy (Dominique Larose), the woman he loved before he left to fight in the First World War.
Daisy, however, is married to the wealthy playboy Tom Buchanan (Gavin McCaig)— who is conducting his own affair with a married woman, Myrtle (Amber Lewis)—and must choose between a miserable future with her brutish (but financially secure) husband or an uncertain one with her devoted (but criminal) former love.
Overall, I was impressed by the clarity and elegance of the storytelling in David Nixon’s choreography. The complicated love lives of the main protagonists are powerfully rendered, and Nixon does a fine job of framing the flashbacks to young Gatsby and Daisy in a way that feels narratively coherent. That being said, I write as someone who has read the novel and watched several film and stage versions of it as well.
When it comes to stage adaptations, I am not one of those pedants who insist on total fidelity to the original text. However, one puzzle that this production doesn’t quite solve is what to do with the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway. While I can only imagine the difficulties involved in converting a first-person perspective into non-verbal language, this version of Gatsby leaves Nick (Sean Bates) sidelined, and the precise nature of his relationship to the main characters is left somewhat unclear—unless, of course, you choose to consult the programme notes.
As one would expect from a ballet version of The Great Gatsby, the production is at its most exciting during the party sequences. Nixon’s energetic choreography, combined with exquisite costuming (tailored suits for the men, short dresses for the women) and period score (including “Charleston”) combine in fabulous style.
The pas de deux between the adulterous couples are also striking. The carnality of the choreography between Tom and Myrtle—full of writhing limbs and pelvic thrusting—forms a pleasing contrast with the overblown romanticism of Gatsby and Daisy.
I’m sure that many people are drawn to The Great Gatsby because of the way in which it conjures up the Roaring Twenties, and the elegance of the period is reflected in Jérôme Kaplan’s stylish set design. Moving panels are used to achieve quick and neat scene changes, and the Art Deco style is employed strategically. Most importantly, the production avoids unnecessary period clutter. Tim Mitchell also deserves praise for his beautiful lighting.
The Great Gastby is one of the finest productions that I have seen from Northern Ballet, offering audiences a welcome reminder of the original novel’s undimmed brilliance.
Reviewer: James Ballands