First of all, for anyone who, like me, is decidedly apprehensive at the thought of anything that categorises itself as ‘immersive’, let me alleviate some of your concerns right now – because Gatsby creators The Guild of Misrule are simply inviting you to join them in a 1920s world of bootleg liquor, red hot jazz and hedonistic pleasures with their latest production. You’re not dragged onstage (because there isn’t a ‘stage’ to be dragged onto), you’re not forced to do anything that you’re not comfortable with (because everyone involved with the production does their utmost from the outset to make you feel comfortable) and you certainly won’t be made to look a fool in front of your fellow theatregoers – because, as Toby Gordon (who plays Tom Buchanan) assured me after the show, ‘that’s just not good theatre.’
Instead, you’re treated exactly as if you are a guest at one of the famous Jay Gatsby’s infamous parties. The moment you step over the threshold into the John Cooper Studio, you are greeted by an usher speaking with a thick American accent. Audience members are encouraged to dress the part, and while I erred on the side of caution (somewhat unconvinced at the levels of commitment I would see on a freezing and decidedly wet December evening) I was delighted to see a profusion of feathered headbands, sparkling tasseled dresses, bow ties and bowler hats as we entered the main performance space – where the tantalising drawl of jazz was already being coaxed from a piano and more ‘American’ bartenders were waiting with cocktails, gin and ‘bootleg bourbon’ ready to pour.
The studio itself has been transformed: bedecked with lavish accessories and draped in richly flowing material that confirms our place within the palatial residence of the affluent and mysterious Gatsby – even if half the studio space is veiled as we walk in. That is until, as if from within the audience’s own ranks, hearty singing starts up from husband and wife team Myrtle and George Wilson, played by set designer Casey Jay-Andrews and Tom Figgins (who, it transpires, was the pianist filling the air with jazz as we walked in) – who focus our attention ready for new cast member Hugh Stubbins to begin the evening’s tale with the beautifully poetic opening monologue from Fitzgerald’s novel, as narrator Nick Carraway.
Hugh strikes the perfect balance as Nick. As the evening progresses, we find our narrator to be wide-eyed in his optimism, relatable in his awkwardness and resolute in his dedication to what he believes to be the infallibility of Gatsby’s character. Nick very quickly becomes someone that we trust: when fellow partygoer Tom leads a group of us off from the main performance space to a drawing room – we soon discover we will be regularly shepherded into different settings by different characters for a variety of different reasons – and Tom gets a little too carried away with his mistress, Myrtle, we look to Nick to gloss over the embarrassment; Nick is the one who keeps a level head when everyone else is swept up in the frenetic excitement of Gatsby’s preparations for his long-awaited tea with Daisy Buchanan, and when events begin to spiral out of control, it is Nick that we know will make what sense he can of the tragedies unfolding before our eyes. This is a trust that is strengthened not only by Nick’s central role within the action, but also by Hugh’s little asides to his nearby party guests, as well as the impromptu introductions he makes as we dash from room to room. It feels very much as if Nick is being swept up in the action as much as we are, and we are glad of his company.
Indeed, that level of familiarity is true of all the characters in the play. We are accepted by a truly stellar cast, who effortlessly segue between ad-lib banter with audience members to delivering the scripted, Fitzgerald-derived dialogue with Shakespearian profundity. Just seconds after they all burst into the centre of the performance space at the beginning of the play with an impressive Charleston routine, dancing mere inches from where we stand, they are pulling us onto the floor to join them; as some of us begin to get roped into loveable chancer George’s off-the-cuff car auction – getting so carried away that we half-expect the vehicle to be waiting for us outside when we leave – his wife Myrtle instantly brings us all down to earth with shattering sarcasm; and when the sensationally sardonic Jordan Baker – expertly played by Gatsby stalwart Holly Beasley-Garrigan – pulls only myself and one other guest to one side to comfort Daisy, we are treated to a different, decidedly more personal side to her character as we feel entirely as though she is taking us into her confidence. The overall effect conjured by all of these seemingly minor details is that we not only see the emotion embedded within each of the characters’ relationships, but we are made to feel it as though it is our own. We have been taken into their circle of trust and, by the end of the evening, feel honour-bound to lie for them in order to protect their secrets.
At no point is this more keenly felt than during what became, for me, one of the stand-out moments of the production. As Gatsby and Daisy – both perfectly embodied by Oliver Towse and Amie Burns Walker – comically and yet poignantly reunite after five long years of separation to find their love for each other stronger than ever, their desire transcends words and they begin a powerful dance sequence to Otis Redding’s heart-wrenchingly romantic I’ve Been Loving You Too Long – an effortlessly lyrical sequence in which they weave themselves up into the rafters of the set with impressive athleticism, dash recklessly through the corridors (as though oblivious to the stampede of audience members in their wake) and pause for split-seconds of breathless longing while we catch them up.
While Gatsby is depicted as aloof by his contemporaries, our experience of him is far more intimate than that of any of his actual guests. We witness his panic as he prepares to meet Daisy again, a few of us even go up to his bedroom to help him pick out his outfit, and the polished charisma that Oliver brings to the role is laced with a tragic vulnerability that cements his place as the one character that we are all rooting for. From the outset, meanwhile, Daisy is the epitome of intrigue – the face to which all eyes are drawn to through the slightest of movements – Amie demonstrating superb versatility in her performance that half-shields heartache with sparkling wit and effortless glamour. It becomes difficult to imagine the two characters as anyone other than who we see before us.
When the pair are caught in their attempt to make a hasty getaway by Daisy’s husband Tom – Toby bringing a real ferocity of temper here that sensationally juxtaposes with the affable charm we see from him earlier in the play – we feel as though we are also backed into a similarly impossible corner. When Gatsby puts himself in Tom’s way to protect Daisy, we feel our own stomachs lurch with fear, and when Daisy grips fearfully onto my arm, I feel myself at once filled with a sense of her impotency: for while I am right in the centre of the action and feel as much a part of the play now as any of the characters, I am powerless – like Daisy and Gatsby are themselves – to save the couple from the events set to spiral from Tom’s wrath.
It is these small details which, together, break down any barrier that existed between actor and audience and which, I discovered in this performance, epitomise the real beauty of immersive theatre. For it is a dramatic format that transcends traditional theatre – bringing you that step closer to the emotion at the heart of story and making you feel, as you walk out of the studio, as though you have not only witnessed the events that have transpired before you, but that they have happened to you directly. That is a powerful feeling to get on a cold and rainy Saturday night in York, and one that I can only encourage anyone within feasible distance of 41 Monkgate to experience at least once before 5th January.