Death In Venice/Blood On the Thistle/Cavalcade
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Opened 24-26 November, 1999

The Circle Studio space at the Glasgow Citz is fairly consistently used for the most outré, sinister productions on the theatre's schedule. Although outdone in September by its neighbour downstairs (the Circle could only boast Irvine Welsh's Filth whilst the Stalls Studio was awash with Clive Barker's The Books Of Blood), it reclaims its rightful place as the home of gothickry and gore this month with a stage adaptation of Blood On The Thistle, Douglas Skelton's journalistic compendium of notable twentieth-century Scottish murders. Of adaptation, direction and design, Kenny Miller is most at home with the last, and so unsurprisingly this is a design-led rendition, as the cast of four move within and around a Perspex cage with smoke vents and functioning showerheads, on a ground strewn with tatters of blood-red tissue paper. We accord significance to various of these visual touches, because there isn't actually much on offer in the way of drama; only a couple of killings are acted out, with the performers spending the rest of the time simply narrating events in either the first or third person whilst prowling the stage.

In the Stalls Studio, Robert David MacDonald's adaptation of Death In Venice is likewise a work primarily of storytelling rather than of theatre. It fares better than its upstairs neighbour, however, partly due to the scrupulous thought which MacDonald has put 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 skilled solo actor (having a couple of 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 the novella is that it almost banishes all thoughts of Visconti's film version.

The main-house production of Noël Coward's Cavalcade is directed and designed by Philip Prowse; consequently, the rest of central Scotland is currently experiencing another of its periodic shortages of crimson crêpe, as Prowse decks out the stage in same to represent the middle-class Marryot household through the first thirty years of this century. At only an hour and a half including musical numbers, it is a slight piece, but Coward was a master of sentiment stopping just this side of mawkishness, and its device of nostalgia for the century chimes well with its staging on both the eve of the millennium and the centenary of Coward's own birth. I worried slightly that the show might be too specifically English rather than British for a successful staging here, but my doubts were dispelled when several of the audience joined in the planted singalong of "Keep The Home Fires Burning". And Michelle Gomez's closing rendition of "Those Twentieth Century Blues" is a wonderful moment of exhausted despair.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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