Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2010

If there really were no second acts in American lives, as F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed, we would have been out of the theatre two hours earlier. Still, let us be thankful for small mercies: Elevator Repair Service’s unabridged stage version of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in 2006 apparently lasted six hours, whereas for their first UK visit they have brought an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises which ambles in at a whisker under four.

One of the principal impressions of this first exposure to “one of New York’s most highly acclaimed experimental theatre companies” is how surprisingly un-experimental it all is. Granted, the action (such as it is) is periodically interrupted by wacky little dance routines; performers work sound effects from a couple of consoles hidden on David Zinn’s hotel-bar set; and Hemingway’s story of a youngish 1920s generation drinking and dallying their way around France and Spain is played in modern dress. But other than that, there is nothing radical... and nearly four hours of John Collins’ production makes for a lot of “other”. The playing style is undemonstrative, as spare as Hemingway’s prose. Roles are doubled by all the cast of ten except the central trio: Mike Iveson as narrator and Hemingway-surrogate Jake Barnes, Matt Tierney as chippy, insecure Robert Cohn and Lucy Taylor as flibbertigibbet aristo Lady Brett Ashley.

Collins does not force the pace, so that the first half spends an hour and three-quarters establishing characters and relationships and feels simply dreary. The second half seems more watchable, although it is arguable how much of this is due to attunement to the style and how much to Hemingway’s tale growing a little more eventful. A programme essay lectures that this is not an adaptation, but rather an attempt “to stage the encounter between literature and theatre, to preserve the book’s ‘bookness’ by accommodating the literary constraints within the situation of the stage.” But a book unfolds at a rate negotiated between author and reader; reading a novel at one sitting is the exception rather than the rule. Collins’ production rather falls between two stools: not long enough to be, like the Gatz show, obviously and deliberately durational, just long enough to be a too-long evening in the theatre.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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