A few weeks ago, to help introduce the new cast of The Great Gatsby to the space and to each other, the production's director Alexander Wright conducted a building-wide game of hide and seek. This was also a way of mapping the terrain, sending the company roaming through the auditorium, and deep backstage, into the dressing rooms, the bar and function rooms beyond, rambling between the old Rotunda Buildings the Gate Theatre has occupied since 1930 and its newer wing, a clean modern space with offices and a studio, finished in 2008.
The game ended happily, until someone pointed out that nobody had seen Owen Roe for about half an hour. Finally, he revealed himself, squeezed into a cabinet space, behind a concealed door, in the rehearsal studio. "I didn't even know it was there," Selina Cartmell admits now.
This is an encouraging sign for Cartmell’s first production as the theatre’s artistic director, which also invites people to see the Gate from different perspectives, spurred by the almost 90-year-old institution’s capacity to still pack a surprise.
Last weekend, with The Great Gatsby in early previews, the theatre itself was settling into its new role. Designed as an immersive, promenade performance, Wright's adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's novel begins at the door. "Once you step over the threshold, you enter Gatsby's mansion," Selina Cartmell says, as we ascend the staircase into an utterly transformed space. The lights in the foyer, usually bright as day, are dimmed to the seductive intimacy of a prohibition-era tryst; the familiar portholes of the bar are tinted deep red, turning the bar into a shady gambling den; but the most staggering transformation, in Ciaran Bagnall's sprawling, detailed design, is that of the auditorium.
“When I first saw the seats coming out, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what am I doing?’” says Cartmell, amused. “It was one of those terrifying moments.” The present space, though, bears out the courage of her convictions. The auditorium is now a grand room, rising on one side towards a champagne bar and a cabaret stage (both functioning) and leading in the other direction to a regal double staircase above an arched doorway. Several people in attendance enthused about what lay beyond – a dingy speakeasy of ill repute which, in reality, is the stage of the Gate theatre, cluttered with discarded theatre props, lights, and, indeed, rows of seats.
In either direction, the private spaces of Gatsby's mansion await, archly folding the Gate's history into its design. In his wood-panelled library, the busts of theatre founders Hilton Edwards and Micháel Mac Liammóir make cameo appearances, while the Gate's hospitality room has been transformed into Gatsby's ornate office. His bedroom is accessed under a canopy of shirts, in the theatre's repurposed green room, and any number of dressing rooms and studio spaces are now chambers, dens and humming boudoirs. Cartmell hesitates at one door. "This is a very secret place," she decides. "I can't take you in." At such times she can sound like the character; charming and welcoming, trailing mysteries.
We return to the speakeasy, burbling with jazz music, from where it is easier to see how illusion is manufactured. “One of the things that Ciaran and Alex, the designer and director, were talking about, was artificiality – the real and unreal in Fitzgerald’s novel,” she says. “So the idea was to create a sort of prism for that, somehow. Here you can see that world exposed and the full width of the stage, which I think is beautiful. You get to hang out here in the bar afterwards, as well. You can take your drinks back here and have conversations after the show.”
A range of house cocktails may make it easier to slip into the production’s spell: there is the Gatsby Gimlet, the gin-based Green Light (named by public competition) and the deceptively innocuous tasting Prohibition Punch, two of which soon arrive. But the discovery so far is that the audience doesn’t require much loosening up.
Encouraged to arrive in 1920s costume, and to follow, by invitation, one of the story’s 10 characters through the narrative, spectators so far have taken to it with surprising ease. Cartmell was pleased to see how eagerly people have stayed behind to take photographs afterwards. “Everyone loves to be part of the Gatsby mansion experience,” she said, as though coining a hashtag. That may explain it: from the lost generation to the selfie generation. The digital age has turned us all into performers, presenting ourselves on various platforms to an audience of our peers. An immersive Gatsby seems entirely of the time: a novel experience in every respect.
A long, lean young man enters the speakeasy, his face in shadow. This is the director Alexander Wright. “Alex is the mastermind,” welcomes Cartmell.
“It’s a hugely beautiful, opulent space,” Wright approved. “As a theatre maker, I very rarely work in theatres.” Indeed, Wright, whose career began in 2008 with the company Belt Up Theatre, effectively developed his aesthetic in an era of austerity, conceiving ingenious performances for pubs and found spaces. “It’s about starting with nothing,” he says. “If the starting point for theatre is a story and people, then for the most part that’s free. Growing up with no money to do anything was very imaginatively helpful.”
Now Wright has the full resources of the Gate, on the biggest production the theatre has ever staged. Determined to bring the old and the new together, Cartmell has also paired seasoned professionals like Owen Roe and Marty Rea (as Nick Carraway, the novel's narrator) together with new bloods such as Charlene McKenna as Daisy and Paul Mescal, a Lir student making his professional debut as the self-inventing Gatsby, while finessing the rough and ready imaginings of Wright's company Guild of Misrule with the detailed design work of Bagnall's set and lights and Peter O'Brien's lavish costumes. This has encouraged the show, which debuted in 2015 in York and is currently running in London, to develop further, raising the cast from seven to 10 and introducing more material.
Rather than seeing the events of The Great Gatsby through Nick Carraway's famously reserved judgment, this bestows a first-person perspective to the audience member. To hear Wright speak of its composition, in which everyone encounters the significant plot points, but divide into one of six different "tracks", the show can sound less like a play than a meticulously designed video game – and not without glitches.
“Some people want to make the scene all about them,” one actor tells me of the liberal audience interaction, which the company is still learning to manage without breaking character. (Code words have been developed in case of trouble or too many Prohibition Punches.) It’s another feat of multi-tasking or performers who must act, dance, sing, host private sessions with selected audience members, and still meet carefully timed cues, all while remembering the new layout of a sprawling space. It’s a feat of improvisation within strict structures. Talk about the jazz age.
I wonder if it was ironic for a company born in a recession to alight on Gatsby, a story of heedless decadence, as a tale for the times. Wright is more inclined to see Fitzgerald’s novel as a prescient study of the bitter end of the party. “What the novel articulates so beautifully is that notion of reaching too far, and wanting too much,” he says.
Cartmell points out that the new material of this production focuses not on the new-money hedonism of Gatsby's West Egg, but on The Valley of Ashes, the underbelly of the Roaring Twenties. "It's both the aspiration of the American dream," she says, "and all those it leaves behind." There is something telling, perhaps, in the audience's performance too, dressing up and playing rich, as so many people in The Great Gatsby do. It's hard to imagine anyone arriving so eagerly to a John Steinbeck adaptation wearing dust-bowl rags.
Invited to stay and watch the company rehearse – “We’re running a car crash!” Wright says enthusiastically – I watch the world of Gatsby taking glittering, rambunctious and calamitous shape. “Of all the buildings and theatres in the world, I knew it would be a perfect fit,” Cartmell says. Above us, the Gate’s chandeliers – “these four boys” she calls them – look sparkling new, illuminated from unfamiliar angles. Like a favourite book, or Owen Roe secreted in a cupboard, it’s as if they too have been waiting, patiently, to be rediscovered.
The Great Gatsby is at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, until September 16th. Gatetheatre.ie