The Great Gatsby
London, Sadler’s Wells
24 March 2015
David Nixon’s balletic interpretation of The Great Gatsby returned to Sadler’s Wells – after a two-year absence – with all the glitz and sparkle of an event that would have been loved by the fictional “Gatsby” and his creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald, both of whom loved to party.
Fitzgerald’s novel was a slow burner, only selling well after the author’s death in 1940, fifteen years’ after its publication. It is now, of course, an icon of American literature and it is an Canadian choreographer – although now very much an adopted Brit, with an OBE to boot – who has taken on the challenge of bringing this great story of the roaring twenties to the stage, as a play (almost) without words.
It’s a tough ask. The mystery of the title character, the complexity of relationships and the subtle symbolism embedded through Fitzgerald’s text, create huge challenges for the choreographer. But they are tackled with significant dexterity, cramming in enough detail to please the cognoscenti but applying broad enough brushstrokes to keep the narrative clear for those without prior knowledge of the novel (or the films it has inspired). Much credit must go to Nixon and his co-director, Patricia Doyle, not only for their deft handling of this complicated story, but also for having the courage to keep most of it intact.
My first reaction, two years ago, was that the downside to this authenticity lay in events unravelling at breakneck pace, thus blurring the clarity of character-building. But, although the pace is still a marathon sprint, I had no such difficulty this time around, perhaps because of renewed familiarity with the storyline, courtesy of the 2013 Baz Luhrmann film. It might also be because the Northern Ballet dancers have grown into these roles that their characterisations are so clear.
Tobias Batley brought an appropriate air of mystery to Jay Gatsby, only bringing his personality into life on meeting his lost love, Daisy Buchanan, alluringly and effervescently portrayed by Martha Leebolt. Kenneth Tindall brought strong physical presence to Daisy’s arrogant, bullying husband, Tom Buchanan; Giuliano Contadini fits the easy-going, easily-led narrator role of Nick Carraway to a tee; and the duplicitous golfer, Jordan Baker, glides aloofly through proceedings in Hannah Bateman’s faithful interpretation of the character that Fitzgerald based on a real-life woman golfer (Edith Cummings) and named by joining together two of the most popular US automobile brands of the time.
The pivotal characters of Myrtle Wilson (Buchanan’s mistress) and her garage-owning husband, George, are sketched more thinly but nonetheless given appropriate authenticity in the respective readings of Jessica Morgan and Isaac Lee-Baker. On a red carpet VIP night with such luminaries of the stage as Sir Ian McKellan in the audience, the Northern Ballet personnel showed a fine sense of theatre with their effective realisation of Fitzgerald’s characters.
Jerôme Kaplan’s set designs capture both the period mood and iconic elements of the narrative, such as the beguiling, flashing green light on the opposite side of the bay that captivates Gatsby as a beacon for his beloved Daisy, and his yellow, long-bonneted car, which proves to be the agent of Myrtle’s destruction. It is a set that manages to do much to aid the narrative with an economy of means.
The biggest challenge lies in the music and, here, the decision to composite elements of the vast musical talent of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett was the stroke of genius that raises the whole ballet to a higher plane. Each of Bennett’s diverse guises as a composer of symphonies, memorable film scores, as a jazz musician and a nightclub singer are represented in a soundtrack that could have been written especially for Gatsby. From the roaring twenties to the hidden, yearning of unrequited love, it’s all here in spades. No wonder the composer gave his permission to draw all this together – he must have known how well it would work – although, sadly, Bennett never lived to see the finished product.
Great credit must go to Gavin Sutherland and John Longstaff for painstakingly orchestrating this wonderful score. The film buff will hear sections of music from Murder on the Orient Express, Nicholas and Alexandra and Lady Caroline Lamb. The most poignant musical episode of all comes with the final number, a recording of Bennett singing his own beautiful song, I Never Went Away, danced as a reflective memory in a concluding pas de deux – tenderly choreographed by Nixon – just prior to the abrupt finale of Gatsby’s murder. Though unintended, Bennett’s lyrics have a bespoke relevance to the melancholy of Gatsby’s last moments, a metaphor for a score that works so well at every level.
David Nixon must be able to lay claim to being the most prolific creator of full-length narrative ballets at work today, possibly anywhere in the world. The Great Gatsby is one of his best.