Note: Gatsby at Trinity, produced by the Trinity Players for their annual garden play, was originally meant to be premiered on the idyllic Trinity Lawns. However, as the weather this term has been far from predictable, the drizzling rain meant the performance was relocated to the Danson Room of Trinity College just for one night. The new space meant there was no natural setting to create a somewhat dreamy atmosphere, but otherwise did not hamper the production. In fact, it had the advantage of allowing the audience to concentrate more on the dialogues and singing of the cast, as the indoor location meant there were better acoustics, allowing for a more intimate performance. Additionally, the original actress for the role of Binnie Hale (Emily Capon) was unavailable during the first act, so Leanne Yau played her instead.
The story of Gatsby at Trinity follows the journey of Jay Gatsby prior to the events of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in which he enrols as a student at Trinity College, Oxford after his heroism in France during the Great War. The script is adapted from the novel of the same name by Ian Flintoff (who read Modern Languages at Trinity and published the novel in 2017), and the events of the play are set in 1919, exactly 100 years ago. The play transports the audience to life at Oxford in the roaring 20s, an era where tradition and etiquette dominated and women were still fighting for their rights to higher education.
The performance opens with Daisy Fay (Olivia Popp) singing ‘Over There’, an American military song from the 1910s designed to galvanise young American men to enlist in the army and fight for their country. It set the tone of the piece well, though Daisy actually does not appear for much of the play. Then appears Jay (Alec Watson) and ‘The Great’ Gatsby (Kevin Hurlbutt) who play the older and younger versions of the main character. This was an ingenious way of communicating the plot to the audience; the younger Gatsby could focus on the action and emotion of the story without being hampered by too much narration, while the older Gatsby filled in the gaps and allowed for effective transitions between scenes, making sure the audience could follow the action at every stage. Alec Watson gave a very humorous and genuine performance of Gatsby in his youth, going about his American ways on a foreign land; Kevin Hurlbutt, on the other hand, is probably one of the best narrators one could ask for, as he captivates the audience with his energetic voice and his iconic straw boater.
Monica Schroeder, who played Johnny Cusworth, a posh Etonian, delivered a stunning performance of an English viscount, and was the standout performance for me. Her facial expressions, well-versed dialogue, and elegant costume exuded an air of confidence that was typical of the archetypal Oxford scholar. Another highlight was that almost every member of the cast played more than one character; the ability to switch between roles and fuse the dialogue with dancing and music was certainly no easy task.
The play succeeds in infusing the glamour of the American Jazz Age and the tradition of early 20th century Oxford with its music choices and costume design. All the music in this play (accompanied by Liam Gesoff) was appropriately chosen for the era and preceded the year of 1919. The costumes worn by the American and British characters contrasted the opulence of the jazz age with the more sombre style of Oxford. The plot was also full of delightful Oxford references: Jay panics when asked to write a classics essay on Cicero due in a week’s time, he and his friends enjoy pints at the Eagle and Child (or The Bird and Baby), and there is even a sconcing scene. We follow a naive Gatsby in his youth as he explores the dynamics of English culture to much amusement from the audience. His first encounter with British culture occurs in a tea shop with Binnie Hale, which sees him being somewhat baffled by the concept of putting milk in tea. Later, he struggles to play cricket in the English way, and there were laughs from the audience as he instinctively held the bat like one would in American baseball.
There is also a love interest, despite the fact that Jay is in love with Daisy, who is in America at this point in time waiting for his return. She comes in the form of Margaret “Madge” Wellesley, played by Leanne Yau. Madge (who cheekily notes at one point that she used to be called Daisy, due to her name originating from marguerite, the French word for the flower) is there to remind him of his long-term love interest. Though Gatsby stays staunchly loyal to Daisy, he and Madge have more than one sweet moment together, making the audience wonder what could have been. One of my favourite moments of the show was during the Blenheim Ball, in which Gatsby and Madge dance together. The scene depicted a quintessential tradition of the Oxford social scene which is still a favourite among students today, while exploring the subtle feelings between two young lovers against a background of soothing music.
The show is particularly notable for its emphasis on diversity, both in the themes it seeks to convey and in its choice of actors. President Blakiston (Marianne James), an extremely sexist man who views Oxford as a fundamentally ‘masculine institution’, was played by a woman. This choice was beautifully ironic, especially during his rant about how the admittance of women would ruin ‘a thousand years of English learning’. This irony was emphasised by James’ dismissive tone and contempt, and the utter conviction that emanated from her as she spoke. Daisy and Madge, the two main love interests of Gatsby, were both played by BAME actresses, and each delivered a superb vocal performance. Olivia Popp, in reading out Daisy’s sentimental letters to Gatsby, exuded charisma and gives the impression of love from a bygone era. Leanne Yau delivered a wonderful performance, captivating hearts with her lively tone, engaging conversation, and clear musical talent. The production did not shy away from highlighting her race – Madge’s costume at the Blenheim Ball was not a standard western ballgown, but an oriental style qipao, emphasising her outspoken and individualistic character, and complementing her resolve to fight for women’s rights. A further highlight was the inclusion of real life people who existed in 1919, such as Binnie Hale (Emily Capon), Siegfried Sassoon (Reya Muller), Harry Lauder (Octavia de Clare), Stella Gibbons (Tara Annis), and Stanley Holloway (Alaina Bullen), who all appeared briefly as cameos in the play.
Overall, Gatsby at Trinity is a very successful rendition of a prequel to Fitzgerald’s classic. We are invited to imagine Gatsby as an ‘Oxford man’ and to follow his transformation from Jimmy Gatz to Jay Gatsby, while exploring important themes of women’s rights, cultural differences, and social dynamics in the 1920s.