Stephen Sharkey is an established playwright who has, in his career, adapted many classic texts for the stage as well as writing original plays with The Miniaturists. The Culture Trip spoke to Sharkey about approaching a celebrated text like The Great Gatsby and how it moved from novel to stage with Blackeyed Theatre’s new production. The Great Gatsby will be touring around the UK throughout autumn 2015 and spring 2016.
How did you come to be working on an adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and has it been a project in the back of your mind for a long time?
SS: No, it wasn’t a book that I had in my sights. The way the project came about was four years ago I worked on an adaptation of a Brecht play about Hitler, the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Liverpool Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse; it was a co-production. Great company, great show to work on, and one of the actors, Eliot, is also a director, and Eliot worked with Blackeyed Theatre and when Adrian was kicking around the idea of doing a production of The Great Gatsby, I think Eliot suggested me as an adaptor. So that’s how I got the call.
I have to confess — I didn’t know the book. I obviously knew of it because of its extraordinary reputation, and I had read some Fitzgerald when I was younger. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t read Gatsby when I was young; I think it’s a very mature, very adult piece of work. It talks a lot about very mature subjects: sex, death, disappointment, the disappearance of dreams and youth. It’s a very elegiac, sad book in many ways, but I guess, on the other hand, it’s part of the moral education of young people — expose them to tragedy, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet and The Great Gatsby, to let them know the darker sides of life.
It is a very, amidst the gleam and the glamour and the glitter — it is a very dark, sad story.
What was involved in the process of adaptation? How long was it? Was it torturous?
SS: What was involved was me reading the book over and over and going through different stages of terror, thinking ‘What have I done? Why did I agree to do this?’ because it’s such an exquisite book; it is a masterpiece. I’ve adapted a lot of stories, comedies and tragedies, I’ve adapted plays and novels, but I think in some ways this was the most difficult novel I’ve approached because it’s so compact; it’s quite a short novel and every page is significant — every paragraph is loaded. So it was quite a challenge to think how to tell the story in two hours on a stage with seven actors. So the first stage was reading it over and over and getting over the terror, just sinking into the book and allowing the ingredients to marinate in my brain — getting to know it, getting under the skin. Luckily, I was working on other things at the same time, so I had to put it aside to work on those other things, and when I came back to Gatsby, I found that my subconscious had moved things on. So by the time I came to write, I had a good idea of how to start. So I got to know the rhythms and the vocabulary; it’s such beautifully written language — so musical and poetic and heightened. I got to know that sense of humour. There’s a very dry, detached, ironic sense of humour that I think is very Fitzgerald, from what I’ve read about him and his personality, always observing and commenting and satirising his contemporaries.
You have adapted many different works before. How did this process compare to the ones before it?
SS: The very first thing I ever wrote for the stage was an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray when I was university. And it was kind of odd realising that in 1988, I wrote the adaptation with a friend, but actually that novel and this novel had some very interesting echoes, interesting themes in common: major themes about time, mortality, class and morality. One thing I always remember about adapting Wilde was that the dialogue is pitch-perfect. He’s a playwright and obviously a great stage writer, and all of the dialogue in The Picture of Dorian Gray could be picked out and put onstage. It made my job very easy; for a first job, it was alright! But similarly, Fitzgerald’s dialogue is extremely speakable; he just has a great ear for the way people, or society, from all walks of life speak. I think he’s very interested in the music of people’s language and speech. It’s been interesting connecting the two stories.
What did you really want to communicate from the novel into the stage script?
SS: I feel there’s very much a responsibility to the writer to communicate their aesthetic and their concerns and in this case, very much the greatness of his conception. I think Fitzgerald had a lot of insecurities, but he knew he could write. And I think he put a lot of himself into Gatsby. So in answer to your question, I felt a great duty to try and get across the artistry, the skill in the story. And it’s difficult because there are certain things that he does in the novel that are too difficult to translate to the stage — the way he plays with time and narrative perspective. So there are conflicting demands because you try to put as much of the artistic sensibility, the slipperiness, but at the same time, I want to tell this great story, this tragedy. There are some fantastic, larger-than-life characters, sort of spectral figures who loom out of the atmosphere of the book, take the stage and then disappear again. So I tried to bring forward some of the strange characters. It’s very much a balancing act between trying to give the audience an idea of the strangeness and skill and fascination of the atmosphere of the novel, and also telling that great story that runs through it.
What does the stage offer The Great Gatsby that the book doesn’t? Other than the obvious stage?
SS: There’s actually a ballet of The Great Gatsby by Northern Ballet, which is very successful. I haven’t seen it sadly. But it shows you that Gatsby is very theatrical; it lends itself to the theatre. There’s a kind of operatic rhythm to Gatsby; you can have these huge set pieces and then you have an intimate scene with two people behind closed doors. Then you have another huge operatic scene, then a monologue or solo. I think it lends itself to theatrical rhythm of going in close and then pulling out wide. But in Blackeyed Theatre’s production, and I think they’re right on the money with this, there is a lot of music — music from the period, which has been beautifully arranged. I think it’s even true that all of the actors in the production play an instrument, so it’s very much a musical thing — not a musical but a play that is driven by music; it’s an extra dimension to the piece. The songs that I’ve mentioned in the script are the four songs that Fitzgerald mentions by name and quotes the actual lyrics in the text. They’ve done a great job of weaving in the music amidst the text, and I think it’s very exciting; it does, as I say, lend itself to that operatic dimension. I think the audience, the few times I’ve seen it, have really responded to it.
Have you been involved in the rehearsal process much? How different is it than what you imagined? How happy are you with the final product?
SS: I went to a read-through and talked to the actors, but it was quite a short rehearsal period, three weeks, so there was a lot to do. I was on call if needed, but I didn’t want to hover over their shoulders too much in rehearsals. I knew they had a lot to get through — a lot of music, a lot of movement.
I didn’t really have an image of what it would be. I suppose I had ideas about how some of the characters might speak. But I’m quite long in tooth now with this playwriting, and one of the great pleasures for me is not knowing what it will be until I see it. I give them the material, and then I like to be surprised; I like to discover it as a new thing. It’s a play that they’ve made using some of my material, and Fitzgerald’s, and the song writers. You know it’s a collaboration, so I don’t have a kind of platonic idea of what the production ought to be like or could be like.
I’m very happy. As you’ll see, it’s a very vivacious and energetic production with attractive, lovely, charming actors, and I think they do a great job of capturing the language. And the music that they play is gorgeous. I think it’s a lovely production; I really do, and for me, it crucially captures the sadness. The numbers are jolly, and there’s great dancing and the company looks gorgeous. But what you actually need for Gatsby is all the glamour and the glitz, but you also need that heart-breaking sense of doom, the dream dying. So they’ve got it; they’ve cracked it.
The Great Gatsby is touring the UK from September 2015 and will be at the Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, London from 6th October – 10th October at 7.30pm, matinees Wednesday at 1.30pm and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets can be purchased here.
By Hayley Ricketson
Hayley Ricketson is a playwright and general theatre practitioner from Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed a Masters in Text and Performance at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and Birkbeck, University of London.