F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby calls to mind flapper dresses, bootleggers making millions out of the Prohibition era and hedonistic parties on estates with rolling lawns and deep green pools, all of which makes the Spier Estate the perfect setting for a new stage adaptation of the great American novel.
The lawns next to the Spier Hotel on the wine estate have been transformed over the past weeks into a stage, complete with Art Deco golden arches, an elaborate lighting rig and, from tonight, chairs for an audience.
Transposing the adapted play from the Wilton’s Music Hall in the east of London to the Stellenbosch winelands meant a change in the setting. Not the actual time period of the story – which remains 1920s America – but the way the play is being presented to the audience walking over the lawn.
Whereas the Wilton’s Music Hall used its small rooms to create bars, with the building adding a decayed glamour to the pre- and post-show party, the wine estate lent itself to a more glamourous, hedonistic Gatsby party.
Director Peter Joucla started off his adaptation of The Great Gatsby as a touring show (in Germany) with a cast of five, which grew to a cast of eight when he reached the Wilton’s Music Hall.
The invitation to come out and work at Spier happened quite quickly and came about because Wilton’s Music Hall’s artistic director, Frances Mayhew, has had a long relationship with Spier and agreed with alacrity when Dick Enthoven invited the production to South Africa.
No stranger to adapting first- person narratives, having worked on Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince and Camus’ L’Etranger, Joucla explained that the trick is to build the stage production around events to create the theatricality.
He has adapted how the story plays out to get around the difficulty of telling a first-person narrative on stage: “A plot in a novel functions differently. It’s difficult because Gatsby dies three-quarters of the way through the book and that’s tough from a theatrical point of view.”
While he sees the merit in being faithful to the source material – the way the experimental theatre group Elevator Repair Service did Gatz by reading every single word of The Great Gatsby earlier this year in London – it’s not quite his style.
“You have to take liberties to reform one artform into another,” said Joucla.
While he originally approached the source material as a potential adaptation at the behest of his producer, he quickly spotted connections to contemporary life, which intrigued him.
There’s an entire culture becoming intoxicated with a new form of music and alcohol, plus the line in the book about how incredible it is that young people can be so wealthy made him think of footballers in the UK and hip hop stars in the US.
“Then I finally started finding the resonance with contemporary society,” said Joucla.
“I was mystified about doing it in South Africa, about how relevant it would be. But, when the actors started talking, telling me about people here who have amassed money very recently interfacing with old money… The audience will get it,” explained Joucla.
He says it’s been a careful balancing act between incor- porating props like real, old cars from the jazz era and allowing the audience to use their imagination and still creating an interactive production.
“Theatre is about the suspension of disbelief, so to have a person die in a pool by really jumping into the pool, it wouldn’t help.
“An audience who is asked to use their imagination is more satisfied than one handed everything on a plate.
“The whole experience of actors improvising in front of them, getting arrested for drinking alcohol, that’s a way to get the audience to understand what Prohibition was. We need to make the audience make a connection and we’ve done that in an interactive way,” said Joucla.
Musical director Kurt Haupt (last seen on our local stages as Monsieur Reyer in Phantom of the Opera) will also get a chance to play the piano after the show, as part of the jazz combo who will entertain the audience as they continue to party into the night at the make-shift speakeasy next to the hotel restaurant.
“The music is used to move the story along, rather than comment on it,” explained Haupt about the show.
The ensemble don black spectacles when they’re acting as the Greek chorus and while they weren’t experienced at a capella singing before rehearsals, that’s changed.
“Teaching them melodic lines was easy, but because they’re not musically trained they didn’t always start on the same pitch.
“All of these songs have been specially arranged and written in close harmony and when they hit that mark, it’s magic,” said Haupt.
This is the second Great Gatsby Haupt has been involved with – having done The Great Gatsby with The Mechanicals at the Little Theatre last year – so it was easy for him to pick up on the music again: “It’s the music of Irving Berlin, it’s Downton Abbey, it’s Gosford Park, it’s where Noel Coward got his inspiration. It’s all in the words, the funny and interesting lyrics.”
• The Great Gatsby is on at Spier from Thursday to and including December 31.