THEATRE / Boldly going where no Mann has gone before

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RED SHIFT'S production of Death in Venice is being billed as the 'stage premiere' of Thomas Mann's story - a double-edged claim, implying that the stage has had good reason for steering clear of it so far. Mann's work consists principally of dramatised landscapes: external images of Venice, and the inner landscape of Aschenbach's mind as he falls under the spell of the exquisite Tadzio and the sickly- sweet air of the infected city. Visconti and Britten had the supra-naturalistic resources of film and opera to transmit the poisonous splendour of both worlds. After them, what does a small-scale dramatisation have to offer?

Atmospherically speaking, not much. Jonathan Holloway directs his adaptation on a stage furnished with three periaktoi which are swivelled round to represent hotel reception desks, or fragments of ancient brickwork; for beach scenes, a pair of them are shunted together to supply a horizon line between two insipid shades of blue. The surrounding company fleetingly don dark glasses to become a sinister trio hastening the hero on his fatal course, but vanish into other roles before they can establish a choric identity.

Perhaps this is a lucky mistake, as the show's strength is that it offers a clean, dry narrative line instead of drenching you in atmosphere. Mann's story is a reversal of the Bildungsroman, the orthodox German fable of character building. Aschenbach starts with a formed character, and his disintegration corresponds to his enlightenment - when he dies, it is from cholera, an undiscriminating epidemic that reconnects him with the rest of mankind.

Holloway's opening scene shows Aschenbach at his most professorial, admonishing a young colleague for succumbing to the same temptations he is about to experience himself. Thereafter the action, including some illuminating new material, unrolls with X-ray clarity. Mann's hero thinks of offering to take Tadzio's family under his protection. Holloway's hero enacts this scene, and consummates its success by clasping the hand of the beautiful child. In the show's most moving passage, he then runs an alternative scenario in which Tadzio's mother rejects the offer and publicly denounces him as a pervert.

Beginning with the looks of an academic stick-insect, Michael Sheldon charts Aschenbach's collapse without adding much colour. Surrounding performances are stunted by incessant doubling; but Tristan Sharps is brilliant as a succession of ominous menials.

For ominous presence, not to mention direct bloodthirsty threat, Edinburgh has no one to rival James Cunningham, in Anthony Neilson's Penetrator. Playing an Awol squaddie, he drops in on two old friends with a psychotic rigmarole about the tortures he has suffered in the Army, and then - producing a butcher's knife - identifies his host as one of the torturers. In language no less than action, this is a brutal piece. It is also an extremely well-written narrative in which robotic violence is gradually displaced by moral ambiguity and tenderness.

'Death in Venice', Assembly Rooms, 031-226 2428.


AWAY FROM Edinburgh the international festival spirit flares up in the Chichester

premiere of Brigitte Jaques's Elvira '40, which restores the giant figure of Louis Jouvet to the stage 40 years after his death. Based on shorthand transcriptions by his secretary, this engrossing piece shows Jouvet at work on Moliere at the Paris Conservatory during the Occupation. Six lessons - proceeding amid power cuts and off-stage tirades in German - are devoted to the scene in Don Juan where Elvira revisits her impious lover and beseeches him to escape damnation. It is a notoriously unplayable scene. For Jouvet it is also 'the most extraordinary scene in the classical repertory'; and Keith Baxter's exasperated, cajoling, commandingly inspired determination to pass this insight on to the struggling Claudia raises the masterclass to a dramatic genre in its own right. In Patrick Garland's production, the student-teacher relationship also becomes a collision of acting styles. Claudia (Debra Beaumont) says she feels at ease in the performance. That proves it's wrong, Jouvet counters. She finds the role unsympathetic. That, he says, is irrelevant. In naturalistic playing, you walk up a flight of stairs; on the classical stage, 'you take the lift straight up to the seventh floor'.

One of Jouvet's essays codifies this approach: 'Analysis obstructs feeling: in approaching a masterpiece, there is only one possible attitude - submission.' It is thrilling to see him applying this general rule to a specific text and a specific performer; and to observe Elvira's transformation from a coquettish ex-mistress to the ecstatic messenger of the gods; who then resumes her former identity as a student with no great hopes in Occupied France. Claudia, we finally discover, is a Jew.

Unlike most poetic tragedies of the English Romantics, Shelley's The Cenci was written for the stage; and it is that which most disqualifies it for modern audiences. The gruesome history of a homicidally incestuous Count murdered by his violated daughter, it is a black museum of guilt-ridden insight, and offers the amazing example of a sentimentally piteous heroine turning into a stone-hearted avenger. It also preserves the outer shell of a Jacobean shocker, crammed with echoes of Shakespeare, and a pantomime villain protagonist. This, alas, is what comes through in Sydnee Blake's revival for the Damned Poets Theatre Company. Modern dress even intensifies the comic side, when Craig Pinder's Cenci joins his guests in a white dinner jacket and suavely announces that he is throwing the party to celebrate the death of his sons. Elsewhere, Mr Pinder is usually seen with his feet apart and snarling. Louise Bangay delivers Beatrice's passages of tormented self-analysis with a clarity that releases its fearful images. But as a victim, she grimaces; and as a killer, she asks for sympathy.

'Elvira '40', Minerva, Chichester, 0243 781312. 'The Cenci', Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, 081-741 8701.

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