On one table sits a well-maintained black typewriter. On the other, a large glass bowl brimming with obscenely ripe, red strawberries. Before even a word is spoken of Death in Venice, the Citizens Theatre of Glasgow’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s haunting novella, this perfect visual image succinctly expresses the battle raging inside the story’s aged protagonist, novelist Gustave von Aschenbach.
Teutonic to his fingertips, and supposedly modeled by Mann on himself, von Aschenbach has practiced his writer’s art with ruthless and self-sacrificing discipline. While he’s on a rare holiday in Venice—flooded by Mann with devils and decay—his repressed heart stages a late-in-life coup, and he falls hopelessly in love with a Polish boy of godlike beauty. The cool observer, who has spent his life studiously peering into the maw of life, now tumbles in willfully.
The dramatization is performed by Citizens Theatre head Giles Havergal. He plays all the characters, meaning an Italian accent here and there and lots and lots of von Aschenbach’s measured self-analysis. Nevertheless, this play belongs to Mann. Robert David MacDonald’s adaptation comes at you in thick, weighty paragraphs, retaining the dense seriousness of the German master’s prose. And Havergal directs himself with a utilitarian simplicity that seems to defer to the majesty of the words.
In fact, the play is so unstinting in its faithfulness to the source text and so static in its staging, it often doesn’t offer much more than a careful rereading of the story would. Still, Havergal—tonally flawless and looking every inch von Aschenbach in a three-piece gray suit and moustache—tells the tale perhaps somewhat better than you might read it. Does that equal good theater? Arguably. Good Mann? Oh, yes.