Death In Venice/Peer Gynt/Pal Joey
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Opened 29 November-1 December, 2000

A sense of "available elsewhere" pervades the Glasgow Citizens' current selection: Peer Gynt can currently also be sampled in Frank McGuinness's version at the Olivier, Pal Joey recently ended a run in Chichester and the West End, and Death In Venice is a revival of the Citz' own fine production from this time last year.

In the Stalls Studio, Robert David MacDonald's adaptation of Death In Venice is a work primarily of storytelling rather than of theatre. However, MacDonald has put scrupulous thought into both the events he selects and the wording he uses: it is notable that every time protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach speaks of his unfamiliar love for the Polish youth Tadzio, he uses either the impersonal pronoun "one" or employs a faintly self-disgusted third-person locution such as "the old lover". Giles Havergal, too, is a killed solo actor (having a few years ago given probably the finest performance of Beckett's Krapp that I have seen on a stage), and directs himself with a low-key yet slightly fussy precision in keeping with the character of the fictitious German man of letters. He occasionally impersonates other characters and brackets the main story with a funeral oration for von Aschenbach, but largely recounts a first-person narrative. The restrained coup comes when he demonstrates his rejuvenating make-up job by decorating a death mask on the wall with strawberry pulp and what appears to be black and red pigment from a typewriter ribbon. Probably the greatest compliment one can now pay to any adaptation of Thomas Mann's novella is that it almost banishes all thoughts of Visconti's film version.

Upstairs, Clare Venables both cuts the behemoth that is Peer Gynt down to two and a quarter hours including two intervals (largely by dint of compressing all of Act Three into a single speech from Peer to the audience) and modernises it, so that the first of Peer's tall tales we hear is of his being asked to deliver a Porsche for some dodgy druggy types, and other scenes are played out against video projections of contemporary urban bustle. As both adapter and director, Venables injects a strain of sardonicism into the proceedings. However, this is a mixed blessing: it alleviates the sententiousness that Ibsen could not avoid even in what was for him a light register, but it also means that a more conscious act of engagement is required for the viewer to treat the metaphysical arguments about selfhood at the heart of the play as anything other than just another ingredient in Peer's picaresque kerfuffle.

Philip Prowse also throws a fistful of updates into the main-house offering, Pal Joey. Although it means we are saddled with self-consciously modish references to Brad Pitt and Liz Hurley, it also gives us a delightfully scabrous rewrite of the savage ditty "Zip", which now takes a pop at everyone from the doyenne of Scottish arts journalists Joyce McMillan to Andrea Hart, the lead actress in Prowse's production itself.

Elsewhere, though, delights are thin on the ground. In going for the sleaze of the seedy Chicago club world in which Rodgers and Hart's 1940 musical is set, Prowse utterly mislays any kind of spark. Solo piano accompaniment is often insufficient to carry songs, especially when they are delivered in Sprechgesang to avoid laying bare the performers' musical inadequacies. John O'Hara's story of the rise and fall of nightclub MC and society toy-boy Joey Evans was never substantial in the first place; it needs to be propelled along by glitz, but instead Prowse sends it clattering over an expanse of misplaced grit.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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