LONDON – One afternoon in September, nine cast members of “The Great Gatsby” staged an immersive theater show like a party at Jay Gatsby’s mansion, dancing fiercely to Charleston at an event in London.
There should have been 10 of them at the rehearsal, but one actor, MJ Lee, was serving as the show’s bugle choreographer. The dancer who usually does this was stuck at home, waiting for the result of a coronovirus test.
Lee did not seem to bother with responsibility. “Absolutely Fabulous!” He kept shouting at James Lawrence, an actor playing the role of Nick Carrewe, the show’s narrator, as he struggled through the steps.
Prior to the lockdown, the show was often described as a party rather than a play. Audience members dressed in suits or flappers, and sipped in a lavish room in a London townhouse decorated in the 1920s bar style. During the show, the actors roamed the audience, often talking directly to the attendees and bringing them into action.
The cast will also take lucky audience members to other rooms in the townhouse – for example, to take part in Gatsby’s Boudor, short, interactive scenes. (Sometimes members of the audience get a little too close. In 2018, police were called after audience members complained of sexual harassment.)
The entire premise of the show had to be changed because of coronovirus, Katie Eoinen said she used to watch rehearsals. “It’s a shame,” he said. “The freedom to move among the audience was something we used to play with and now we are limited to a slightly more traditional theater setup,” he said.
Prior to the lockdown, he said, Charleston was staged as a dance lesson for a 250-strong audience, asking everyone to join. Now, it will only involve the actors in the dance, and there will be only 70 spectators, all wearing masks. And sitting in chairs, to maintain social distance.
Some viewers will still be moved to other rooms, Ioannon said, but their experiences will be different. For example, in Baudryer, Gatsby threw the contents of his wardrobe over the attendees, as they searched for the perfect party dress. But touching so many people with similar items was now a risk, she said. Gatsby will now ask questions from audience members about which outfits he liked.
“It’s still immature theater,” Eyon said, “just less interactive.”
On 22 September, at the rehearsal, all creative changes were agreed to return to the show. But Eynon said she still felt “a bit tense” because of another issue: the British government’s coronovirus regulations, which have been regularly changed, on short notice. Moments before that day’s rehearsal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that hospitality sites would have to close at 10 pm
It wasn’t great for “Gatsby”, Eoin said, as the show made a profit by keeping its bar open after the show ended.
“What a change we’ll see tomorrow!” she added.
In early October, a few weeks after rehearsal, “The Great Gatsby” had reopened. At around 7pm, the first of the first 70 guests of the night arrived at the townhouse in the Mayfair district, some dressed luxuriously with blue surgical masks.
Aeonan, standing outside, said she was relieved that the show was finally on. New security measures were everywhere, Ioannon said. There was a temperature check at the door as well as an air filtration system, cleaning the air every six minutes, he explained, and each room would be treated with ultraviolet light to kill germs between performances.
In interviews with eight viewers as soon as they arrived, only talked about concerns about coronoviruses. “I’m worried inside,” said 24-year-old student Michael Jing, who attended with his girlfriend. “But I think I won’t have another chance to go to the theater in the future, so I want to try.”
Inside the glamorous main room, which features a fountain bubbling up from the distance and lots of gold art deco decorations, audience members are directed to their tables where they order drinks from masked waiters.
At first, it was difficult to avoid epistemic thoughts. Rosie Rosenthal (Hugh Stubbins) closed the show by standing on the bar and announcing a very non-Gatsby set of rules, with the chief of them stating that attendees should never leave their seats unless one Cast members do not invite them.
“Get those masks, let’s swing this party,” he said.
But once that got out of the way, the show’s changes were humble. When audience members were taken to watch the drowning scenes, the characters gave them subtle reminders to sanctify their hands. Nick Carve said, “Let’s get fresh.” “It’s New York City, you never know who’s touched what,” he said.
30-year-old Ruth Turner, a civil servant, said she felt people walk out of the main room to visit secret places. “Generally in immersive theater, you roam wherever you want,” she said. Made to sit in a place that felt like “watching a play at once,” he said.
52-year-old Maya Honon was more enthusiastic. “The whole experience is just so special,” he said as he was invited to participate in the action by playing one of Gatsby’s maids and setting up a tea service for her. “We’ve all been in lockdown for so long, everything has grown so much.”
The game may have to be called off again, he said, adding that the government was likely to announce new sanctions, but hoped that would not happen. The whole of England is currently subject to a 10 o’clock hospitality curfew, and, on Saturday, houses blending indoors were banned for London, although theaters may remain open.
At 9:55, minutes before the curfew, “The Great Gatsby” ended for cheers. Nick stood on the causeway bar and fell out of character for some time to address everyone. “A big welcome back is just getting together and doing things again,” he said.
“It’s usually time we say we’ll get out of costume and join for drinks,” he said. “But it is illegal. So have a beautiful, beautiful evening. “