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Giles Havergal in Death in Venice
(Photo: Aaron Epstein)
At the start of Robert David MacDonald's Death in Venice adaptation, Giles Havergal steps onto the stage from the auditorium. He is wearing a three-button gray suit, a black tie, and a black armband. Before he faces the audience, he gingerly proceeds upstage to hang a wreath beneath a white death mask mounted on a thick white plinth. The only other items that set and costume designer Philip Witcomb has immaculately furnished, and which Havergal ignores for the moment, are a long-legged white table atop which rests a bowl of strawberries, an old typewriter sitting on an old desk, and two sizable blue blocks to serve as seats. At the back of the stage is a curtain painted to suggest a blue sea under a less blue sky. It's all strikingly pristine, spare but aesthetically pleasing.

When Havergal turns to speak as if at a memorial service, it's also with a pristine flair. A man with a longish, chiseled face notable for a tidy mustache above thin patrician lips, the actor somewhat resembles Clifton Webb and shares Webb's clipped, even prissy manner. He immediately begins to describe someone called Gustav Aschenbach, who, he explains, was an esteemed writer. What Havergal doesn't say is that Aschenbach is the protagonist of Thomas Mann's most famous novella. He's an esthete, who, after years of channeling his sexual urges into masterfully controlled professorial literature, leaves his native Germany for a vacation on the Adriatic. There, he's slowly undone when he becomes enamored of a beautiful, aloof adolescent boy called Tadzio.

Within a minute or two of Havergal's discoursing on Aschenbach in the third person, he seamlessly switches into the first person. Becoming the unraveling Aschenbach, he eases himself into an especially fine example of how enthralling story theater can be when the storyteller is at one and the same time in total command of the prose he's delivering and lost in a character's intensifying drama. Havergal, who also directed this edited and slightly rearranged version of Mann's work, presents Death in Venice with an irresistible conviction. He's helped along by Mann's poetic rhythms which, academics have noted, are frequently in dactylic hexameter and therefore a deliberate evocation of Homer's troubadour style. Havergal is speaking aloud a story that lends itself--like many of the best stories do--to being spoken aloud. (For the piece, adaptor MacDonald used David Luke's widely admired translation of the classic work.)

In Mann's symbol-laden tale, the elitist Aschenbach attempts initially to pass off his fascination with Tadzio, a vacationing Pole, as an extension of a lifelong probe into the nature of beauty. He says about this avatar of Apollonian loveliness, "I felt I was gazing on beauty itself, on form expressed as a thought of God, on the perfection which dwells in the spirit alone, of which a human likeness had been set up here for me to worship. My mind was in labor, its store of culture in ferment and my memory threw up ancient thought, learned as a boy ... Socrates instructing Phaedrus on desire and virtue." The overripe passage is Mann sending up the plummy manner in which the learned--and that possibly includes himself--often fool themselves about what the mundane and perhaps basest motives are behind their donnish interests.

As Aschenbach gradually loses his grip on his Northern European composure under the glare of the Southern European sun, he eventually has to admit to himself that he has fallen in love with the stunning child. Even though he never has so much as a polite exchange with the admired boy, and even though he only surmises that the lad notices his devoted interest and doesn't discourage it, he determines to stay in Venice as long as Tadzio remains there with his mother, sisters, and nanny. And the outcome isn't cheerful.

Typically, Mann is writing about many complex subjects--perhaps foremost about romantic obsession and, secondarily, about the potential pretension of scholarly absorption. Moreover, it's long been taken for granted that Death in Venice, which is unmistakably marked by homoeroticism, is an autobiographical work. And if autobiographical fiction tends to be concerned with what the fiction writer wishes for himself or, conversely, with what he fears for himself, Mann's novella is (of course) an example of the latter sort. The pressure-cooker yarn, composed after Mann had taken his own 1911 trip to the Lido, is very likely about a fight with his own demons. In it, the protagonist spirals downward while expressing previously repressed desires. As the moralist Mann contrives it, careless letting go demands punishment; that's what comes to Aschenbach when he stays on in Venice despite a cholera outbreak.

Havergal, in speaking Mann's phrases, utters every one of them are if they are ominous verbal chords. His quickening tempos are a dramatic equivalent of the slippery-slope momentum Mann has written into the dense sentences and paragraphs. At first, Havergal is measured in his speech as well as in the way he navigates the stage. He also seizes the opportunity to impersonate various characters whom Aschenbach encounters on his journey into darkness, usually in mocking fashion. Those whom Aschenbach disparages include a fellow passenger on a boat he takes at the start of his trip, a knavish man who has taken to dyeing his hair and rouging his cheeks in a foolish stab at looking younger. Havergal gets Aschenbach's contempt into his mimicry, and the display takes on ironic meaning later when Aschenbach himself succumbs to the humiliating pursuit of lost youth.

Havergal as Aschenbach in Death in Venice
(Photo: Aaron Epstein)
Eventually, Havergal is darting the width and depth of the stage, showing the mindless frenzy with which Aschenbach hustles through Venice in furtive pursuit of the non-committal Tadzio. Before Havelgal has finished telling the horrific tale, he's lurking against the white plinth, he's collapsing by a blue block. In one of the director-actor's most terrifyingly inspired moments, he defaces the white death mask with black and red paint as a representation of Aschenbach's applying garish makeup to look youthful for the object of his passion. (Incidentally, as a glimpse of a deluded man becoming the thing he fears most, Death in Venice foreshadows Philip Roth's "Eli, the Fanatic." In its view of Venice as Gothically treacherous, the novella also has much in common with Daphne du Maurier's "Don't Look Now" and Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers. None of these works might have surfaced had Mann not led the way.)
Havergal, who has directed Glasgow's prestigious Citizens' Theatre Company for 30 years, seems fond of transforming written literature into stageworthy pieces. Most recently, he converted Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt into a romp for four men. (They, too, wore gray suits but no black armbands.) For his efforts, he's now given himself a terrific reward: a first-rate performance piece.

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