Interview with Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew, director and writer of The Great Gatsby

Some things, it seems, are simply serendipitous. And bringing a new adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to Grosvenor Park this summer appears to be one of them.

When Storyhouse producer Helen Redcliffe first approached husband-and-wife creative team Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew with the idea of turning Fitzgerald’s memorable Jazz Age classic into a production for the 2023 open-air season, it turns out Gatsby was already on Deborah’s mind.

The playwright studied American literature in the first year of her drama degree at university during which she read – and loved – the novel.

Then last summer she finally had occasion to revisit the story.

She explains: “We do a lot of educational engagement with Claybody (the theatre company the pair run in Stoke-on-Trent) and I’d done some workshops with sixth formers about adapting novels for the stage. I said to their teacher: ‘Tell me what they’re studying, and I’ll gear the workshop towards that.’ And it was The Great Gatsby!”

Conrad and Deborah are returning to Chester’s theatre-in-the-round after creating a hugely successful and well-received open-air version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 2021.

While that experience sits in the back of their minds, bringing Fitzgerald’s hedonistic but ultimately tragic tale to life has been a very different project.

“Gatsby is a different sort of story, a very dark story, and we’ve had the challenge of trying to find a way of keeping the audience invested and engaged and enjoying themselves through some very grim stuff,” admits Deborah. “But it’s so brilliant, and I think Conrad has joined the ranks of admirers now of the book.”

And it appears he’s not the only one.

“Every actor that we’ve auditioned seems to know this book or have studied it or says it’s one of their favourites,” Conrad, who is directing the production, reveals. “Very few people that I’ve met so far have no knowledge of Gatsby whatsoever.”

Fitzgerald published the slim novel – his third book – in 1925 and drew on his own life experiences as well as witnessing the antics of the smart set who frequented Long Island’s exclusive enclaves.

The story is narrated in retrospect by an outsider, the Midwestern war veteran Nick Carraway, who relocates to New York for work and who becomes embroiled in the world of the rich including his cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom, and Nick’s mysterious wealthy Long Island neighbour Jay Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby was turned into a stage production as early as 1926, and there have also been several cinema and television adaptations over the last century, including the 1974 movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and – more recently – Baz Luhrmann’s version starring Leonardi DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire.

While Luhrmann had his narrator writing his tale in a sanitorium as a way of exorcising his demons, in this latest version for Grosvenor Park, Carraway will be in the witness box at an inquest, and the audience will be right there in the courtroom with him.

The amphitheatre is being reconfigured to create a raised platform at one of its four entrances which will act both as a courtroom witness box and a ‘sub-stage’ for the cast’s actor-musicians, while the action will spill out across the whole central performance space.

“My job is to make sure we play that space as dynamically as possible,” Conrad explains. “Filling in one of those entrances gives us an extra dynamic that people won’t have seen before.”

While The Great Gatsby has become associated with gilded opulence, the glamour hides an uglier world in which three central figures are dead before the final scene.

Conrad says: “I think it’s the most adult themed piece that the park has ever done. I don’t think that anyone has been shot before!”

For Deborah, there’s a palpable sense of injustice in the fact that some characters – notably the rich but brutish Tom Buchanan – seem to walk away from the carnage unscathed.

She says: “I think the thing that angers Nick, and by default Fitzgerald, is the fact that the Buchanans have this veneer of respectability and power and wealth. But underneath they are completely vacuous and corrupt.

“And Gatsby is the reverse of that. He’s apparently brash, common, a likeable rogue. He’s corrupt, a bootlegger. But on the inside, he’s pure and he has this pure, and as Fitzgerald says, this incorruptible, dream.

“So it is about glamour, but it’s also about what’s underneath.”

Tom Buchanan is everything that’s wrong with toxic masculinity – he’s racist, he’s misogynistic, he’s violent, he’s entitled. He’s awful, a truly, truly awful man.”

Some of his characters may be unremittingly awful, but Fitzgerald’s writing remains a masterpiece.

“The final showdown in the Plaza hotel between Tom and Gatsby is devastating and as a dramatist you go ‘nobody could do that any better’,” Deborah smiles.

“The way that scene turns from the beginning to the end, over four short pages of dialogue, it just completely pivots and is so brilliant. And you can see every perspective in that room as it’s happening. You can see Tom’s point of view, you can see Gatsby’s, you can see Daisy’s and you float around it like Nick. It’s brilliant.

For Conrad, there are so many layers to Fitzgerald’s story “you can go on talking about it for absolute hours.

“And our job is to make a very good job of putting it in front of the audience and maintain their interest, and they can go away and continue those discussions as I’m sure people will…That’s the best thing about theatre.”


Book tickets for The Great Gatsby at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre here.