Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Giles Havergal gives an Interesting Performance in Death in Venice

Also see Richard's reviews of Trog! and Salome

Giles Havergal
Veteran actor and director Giles Havergal brings his famed one-man Glasgow Citizen's Theatre drama Death In Venice to the Zeum Theater, running through September 24. This is a co-production of American Conservatory Theatre and Theatre Rhinoceros. The spiritual nature of beauty in its dual power to enrapture and destroy is explored in this production, based on Thomas Mann's 1912 novella.

Havergal has traveled the world presenting this performance. Along with Robert David MacDonald, Havergal wrote the 90-minute show for the Glasgow Citizen's Theatre in 1999 where it received positive reviews from the critics. It played Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, getting great reviews from the New York Post and New York Times. Havergal follows the novella closely as he portrays ageing aesthete, fictional writer Gustav von Aschenbach in Venice during the early 1900s.

Havergal is first seen at a funeral service for Aschenbach, and the actor gives a eulogy on the great German writer. He gives the audience a background of this introverted writer and moves from there to become Aschenbach, speaking in a first person narrative. He is seen writing his last novel in Venice.

Aschenbach sees a beautiful fourteen-year-old boy on the beach with his family. The sexually repressed writer becomes infatuated with the Polish boy named Tadzio and he describes the boy as an Adonis. The growth of his pederastic fascination surprises him, but he keeps stalking the boy wherever he goes. Tadzio becomes something unattainable in Aschenbach's mind. You see the mental breakdown of the man as he follows the boy about the city. Venice is in the throes of a cholera epidemic but Aschenbach refuses to leave since the boy and his family are still in the city. Aschenbach attempts to become "youthful" by going to an Italian barber who dyes his gray hair black, puts rouge on his cheeks and darkens his eyebrows (all of this is done on a white on white death mask on the monument that dominates Philip Witcomb's striking set).

Giles Havergal occasionally impersonates other characters with the appropriate accent and gestures, such as an Italian gondolier and an Italian barber. During these impersonations, the "lecture" comes alive. Most of the time he is presenting a bookish lecture rather than stimulating live theatre. The academic nature of Mann's novella is sometimes lost to the audience.

Philip Witcomb's set is sparse but elegant. On a high pedestal is a large bowl of lovely strawberries that the actor partakes of occasionally. On the left side is an office chair and typewriter. In the center is the striking monument with the death mask. An upstage trough springs into action when Aschenbach is wandering near the canals. Zerlina Hughes' lighting effects are wonderful. She cleanses the stage with warm sunshine and evokes shadows of a cathedral across a real curtain.

Death in Venice is playing at the Zeum Theatre, Fourth and Howard Street, San Francisco through September 24th. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or on line at

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

Photo: Alan Wylie

- Richard Connema

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