F Scott Fitzgerald Takes to the Stage

23/03/2013

 Richard Rodney Bennett, The Great Gatsby: Northern Ballet, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 21.03.2013 (SRT)

Cast:
Jay Gatsby: Tobias Batley
Daisy Buchanan: Martha Leebolt
Nick Carraway: Giuliano Contadini
Tom Buchanan: Kenneth Tindall
Jordan Baker: Hannah Bateman
Myrtle Wilson: Victoria Sibson
George Wilson: Benjamin Mitchell
Young Daisy: Michela Paolacci
Young Jay: Jeremy Curnier

Production:
David Nixon (Choreography, Direction & Costume Design)
Patricia Doyle (Co-direction)
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (Music)
Jérôme Kaplan (Set Design)
Tim Mitchell (Lighting Design)
John Pryce Jones (Music Director)

 Tobias Batley as Jay Gatsby and Martha Leebolt as Daisy Buchanan in The-Great Gatsby-- Picture Copyright Northern Ballet

Tobias Batley as Jay Gatsby and Martha Leebolt as Daisy Buchanan in The-Great Gatsby– Picture Copyright Northern Ballet

Northern Ballet have made a real name for themselves in adapting well known stories to the medium of dance, and their Spring/Summer show for 2013 is another crack at a genre in which they have come to excel. They are so strong in this field because they are very gifted storytellers, and this virtue came through tonight. The Great Gatsby is one of the greatest and best loved of all 20th Century novels, and transferring the story from one format into another is a daunting task for anyone, but the key to the work’s success is that, like the novel, each of the story’s worlds is characterised distinctively and very individually. Nick is a simple character who lives in simple surroundings, while Gatsby’s enormous house and gardens suggest his vulgarity as well as his opulence. The Buchanans live in a world of elegant draperies and polite parties, while Wilson’s garage is a grimy, sultry backwater.

Each of the characters gets a choreographic personality to go with this, enabling a vast amount of the story to be told with what seems like minimum effort. The bold physicality of Tom Buchanan, for example, is evident from the start in the way he struts around the stage and controls (often through lifting) everyone he comes into contact with, including Nick. Jordan Baker is recognisable through her golf swing, but she dances in a fickle, somewhat stand-offish way, disappearing from the story altogether after the car accident. George Wilson is a down-at-heel mechanic with little going for him but with more energy than Fitzgerald credits him with in the novel. He is brought brilliantly to life by Benjamin Mitchell, who does all manner of moves with a car tyre, while Myrtle, danced playfully but passionately by Victoria Sibson, is full of sultry passion, her overtly sexual nature smouldering only just below the surface.

Daisy and Gatsby, the emotional fulcrum of the novel, are given sensual lines of elegance and beauty. I found the suggestions of their past life very moving, especially when compared with their present-day selves, and there is a fragility to the dancing of Martha Leebolt that underlines Daisy’s attractiveness but also her fundamental superficiality. Tobias Batley cuts a tall, lean figure as Gatsby and isn’t as immediately distinctive as the other characters, but he comes into his own in the final scenes where he dances with both the present and the past Daisy, uniting them in his mind just before he meets his end. The finest actor of the show, though, is Giuliano Contadini, who uses his face as much as his body to show Nick’s Everyman nature, open to everyone and observing everything, but only offering judgement at the very last point.

David Nixon’s choreography is seldom spectacular and tend to (over-) rely on pirouettes, but he tells the story admirably, and I liked the way he paints Daisy and Gatsby’s story by refracting it through their past. His condensation of the novel’s ending also works well and some of the set-piece scenes are very effective: the moment when Gatsby meets Daisy’s daughter, for example, is toe-curlingly uncomfortable. Jérôme Kaplan’s transitory sets glide in and out effortlessly and also help the story-telling to flow with ease, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s score contributes admirably to the story in as vital a way as the other elements. His Twenties-influenced, jazz inflected style suits the first half very well, but then becomes ever more angular, even dissonant as the story moves towards its tragic climax. Using the Percussion Concerto for the scene in the Park Plaza hotel was an inspired choice, underlying, as it does, the horrible awkwardness of the situation.

Much as I enjoyed it, though, the first half felt too long. Some of the dancing, particularly in the party scenes, felt a little indulgent and its length held up the dramatic flow in a way that damaged the power of the unfolding story. However, this gripe aside, it’s a triumph. The Great Gatsby continues at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre until Saturday 23rd March, and then on nationwide tour until 18th May. For full details go to www.northernballet.com

Simon Thompson

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