A SPARE, stripped-down Death in Venice? It sounds about as dubious a proposition as a luxuriant, richly upholstered Waiting for Godot. Nevertheless, this is what Jonathan Holloway and Red Shift are now offering at the Edinburgh Festival. Their show, using a cast of just four actors, is being plugged a trifle tendentiously as the first stage version of Thomas Mann's novella - a claim which will come as a bit of a surprise to anyone who has seen Benjamin Britten's powerful opera. It reveals Red Shift operating at a level some way below its best work.
Curiously, the visual evocation of double-natured, beauteous-corrupt Venice is one of the best aspects of the project. The cast create the settings by manoeuvring about a number of tall triangular flats whose different faces can be swivelled round to form the blue line of sea and sky at the Lido, the marble interior of Aschenbach's hotel, or the peeling walls of Venetian palazzi. The mobility of these flats helps reproduce the impression you sometimes get in Venice that it's the buildings that are gliding past, rather than you.
As far as actual water goes, though, this is very much Dearth in Venice. A more suggested use of the aqueously reflected light that's glimpsed briefly would have helped. Again, though Richard Clare's post-adolescent Tadzio may look a bit of a drip as he wades in slow motion round the stage, we never see the character dripping from the sea as we do in one of the novella's most charged moments: 'The sight of this living figure, virginally pure and austere, with dripping locks, beautiful as a tender young god, emerging from the depth of sea and sky, outrunning the element - it conjured up mythologies . . .' Because he has to play several other parts, Mr Clare can't afford to get his hair wet.
In the most creative reflections on Mann's book, the interpreters have tended to rediscover themselves. Visconti found Visconti; Britten found deeply Brittenesque themes. Mr Holloway seems to have found a prosy, small-scale work of which he gives us an efficient summary, interspersed with flashbacks which offer to explain Aschenbach by way of a cosseted past. These are badly acted and relayed in wincingly leaden dialogue ('I am Gustav von Aschenbach,' he corrects his wife. 'Sorry,' she replies, 'but it's difficult to be impressed when I have to live with you.'). Additionally damaging is the way these intrusions militate against any real build-up of intensity in the depiction of the hero's infatuation with the young boy.
Dame Edna Everage recently described Aschenbach as 'that dyed-haired old dysfunction in a deckchair' and you don't need to be an Australian philistine to see the ridiculous side of him. 'Passion as confusion and as a stripping of dignity was really the subject of my tale,' Mann wrote in a letter, and he was aware that the conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac within the hero is also enacted in the tension between the Protestant and the decadent elements in the treatment. If you believe that adaptations should interrogate as well as illustrate the original text, then you'll be disappointed in this production's failure to explore such disjunctions more inventively.
It is a deficiency all the odder given that this same company's adaptation of The Mill on the Floss was so strong in that very respect: putting on stage, in the most thought-provoking manner, the tensions between George Eliot and her semi-autobiographical heroine. In any case, the actor playing Aschenbach is miscast, one of nature's Mr Pooters rather than the man whose noble features were modelled on those of Mahler, so the scale of his humiliation, like much else in the production, feels diminished.
Continues at the Assembly Rooms until 4 Sept (031-226 2428).
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