The Importance of Performance

This weekend marks Lawrence Sterne’s 300th birthday, and to celebrate the Laurence Sterne Trust’s Good Humour Club put on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – adapted and performed by Stephen Oxley. It was a consummate performance with Oxley taking on many roles – Shandy, Uncle Toby, father, mother, maid  and many more – to great comedic effect. It’s a testament to Oxley’s performance that he managed to string Sterne’s rambling novel into a coherent and easy to follow production.

The show brought home to me the value of the performance of written works – especially when they were written in a different time or culture with the consequent obstacles to appreciating the meanings and nuances of the text on the page. This seems obvious in regards to plays, yet many people seem to have been put off Shakespeare for good by turgid lessons at school, and consequently miss out on the pleasures of a good Shakespeare production on stage.

However, hearing the words spoken aloud isn’t necessarily a beneficial experience. I’ve sat through a painfully dull and wordy Twelfth Night, but thankfully wasn’t put off from seeing the outstanding Globe production – a performance that was truly hilarious and needed no ‘education’ in the play or Shakespeare to enjoy. A director and performers who are passionate and educated about their material make even ‘challenging’ work surprisingly accessible and are invaluable for suggesting new interpretations and ideas to both knowledgeable audiences and newcomers.

While Gatz was quite a marathon (an eight-hour word-for-word rendering of The Great Gatsby onstage), lacking the leisurely pleasure of reading The Great Gatsby at your own pace and leaving me slightly sketchy on the finer points of the plot, Scott Shepherd’s obvious devotion to the book and his animated performance left me with a much greater appreciation of the language than I could have hoped to glean from simply reading the book myself.

The Tristram Shandy performance was equally revelatory. Although I enjoyed reading the novel it was perhaps more down to my love of the eighteenth century than a genuine literary appreciation of the book and I did find it a bit hard going. Stephen Oxley’s performance brought to life the humour in the novel and emphasised Sterne’s mastery of digression. With today marking the tercentenary of the birth of Laurence Sterne, Oxley and The Laurence Sterne Trust have provided me with a timely inspiration to reread Tristram Shandy, and I’m sure that having seen the performance the book will now make very different reading.

GATZ

Seeing Elevator Repair Service’s GATZ a couple of performances before the end of its six week London run, I was unsure what to expect. Staging it has been an epic achievement in itself; however while an eight-hour production is guaranteed to attract attention, whether it is an enjoyable experience is a different matter. The fact that GATZ held our attention for three times as long as a normal performance is testament to the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, to the ingenuity of John Collins’ staging and the stamina of the cast (in particular the amazing endurance of Scott Shepherd). For those who have been involved with the project since its inception in the late ‘90s it is clearly a labour of love, and Shepherd has committed the entirety of the 49,000 word novel to memory.

Having booked the cheapest tickets for the performance, with a seat at the back of the Noël Coward Theatre’s balcony, I was slightly worried that after eight hours I’d come to regret my frugality. However, apart from the heads of those leaning forward I had a good view of the stage, and ample leg room. I wondered if the audience might thin after the dinner break, but in the balcony there were only a couple of newly vacant seats. While there were a few moments when the pace slowed and I found my attention drifting, on the whole GATZ was thoroughly engaging; I’ve sat through plays a third of the length that were far less interesting. Starting with an office worker who discovers a copy of the book and begins to read it aloud, his co-workers begin to occupy the roles of the characters. The office workers are under-developed, with the actors not coming to prominence until they take on the roles from the novel. Yet once they have, the cast tells the story effectively – evoking wealth and exuberance despite the dreary office backdrop.

Despite the excellent support of the rest of the cast, I felt that one of the most successful parts of the play was the end, which was effectively a half-hour monologue by Shepherd as he leaves the book and speaks directly to the audience. I heard a fellow audience member on the train sum up the experience well; that although he was glad he had been, and he had enjoyed the experience, he wasn’t sure that he could do it again. Which makes the commitment and stamina of the cast all the more astonishing.