Trimalchio in West London
You may not have heard that word before. ‘Trimalchio.’ It goes back to a 1st century play by Pelonius. It belonged to a slave who escapes bondage, acquiring obscene wealth in the process. In Satricon, Trimalchio throws lavish parties and rubs shoulders with those who had enslaved him. At one of his parties, revellers break into a semi-cooked egg, finding, once the shell is broken open, a half-formed baby bird. The embryo is equal parts grotesque and a sumptuous delicacy. It is the duality of this scene that speaks to Fitzgerald, who fashioned Gatsby after the tale of this ex-slave.
Gatsby. Trimalchio in West Egg – now in West London. But the question remains, did the Immersion Theatre pull off what the entertainment industry has been struggling to do without Hollywood’s unfathomable budgets? Did they balance the distracting glamour of the Roaring Twenties with a narrative about prohibition, crime, and excess? We all remember the frivolous but altogether limp offerings from Baz Luhrmann, whose nearly direct translation from page to camera lens left much to be desired.
The answer is yes… and also no.
Gatsby’s mansion is, first and foremost, an ambitious project with much to praise.
Where this show shines is in the imagining of Fitzgerald’s 1920s America in a three-dimensional space- a space which imposes both new possibilities and limitations on viewer perspective- both helping to service the overall vision. The Great Gatsby is at the end of the day, a story about secrets. Guests are spirited away to different corners of the mansion to witness private meetings and intimate unions. To great effect; viewers are left with an immersive but fragmented story. I, for one, sat in amongst a crowd of bootleggers, helped rig the world series, but also witnessed the crumbling marriage of two working-class Americans.
Don’t ask me what motivates Tom Buchanan, or what Daisy was thinking while different men forced her affections, because I don’t know. That was happening elsewhere in Gatsby’s mansion. It is a piece of the puzzle that I, much like Gatsby, was not privy to. It makes the avalanche of an Act 3 all the more unexpected – as unexpected as the choir singing over Gatsby’s death.
Elliot Liburd’s performance as Jay Gatsby was riveting. He balances his presence and voice in a display of raw masculinity and a material façade, always at risk of being pulled apart.
But this makes it all the more jarring to watch Safeena Ladha flail across the stage with her brutal leg kicks – I think she was trying to do the Charleston. The rest of the cast produce consistent accent work, phenomenal voices, and eye-popping vocal control in the cases of Aimie Barett and Jessica Hern in the roles of Myrtle Wilson and Jordan Baker respectively, but Safeena struggles to compose herself. Of all the unexpected musical additions to Gatsby’s mansions, her’s consistently stood out… for the wrong reasons.
Aimie Barett steals the show with the sheer versatility and beauty of her singing. Meanwhile depictions of Tom Buchanan and Rosy Rosenthal are burdened by trite wise-guy stereotypes. Tom Buchanan in particular was disappointing. It was less ruthless American heir, and more a Thomas Selby copycat. Strange, because they allow for much more nuance in the case of Steve McCourt’s powerful George Wilson.
Interesting choices are made in the writing room. You are treated to a blend of Fitzgerald’s poignant exposition, and a mixture of original scene work – expect greater insight into the Wilsons, take a peek into Gatsby’s secretive criminal life, and listen into the private conversations of Jordan Baker and Daisy Buchanan. While the quality of the contemporary writing varies, the cast do their best to maintain the illusion of a narrative in a unified voice.
Overall, Gatsby’s mansion at the Immersive is well worth seeing. It is an experience unlike other plays. You will touch, taste and influence events as they come careening to a tragic, and meaningful end.