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A CurtainUp Review
Death in Venice
David Lohrey
You must not smile so! Listen, no one is allowed to smile that way to anyone!
Giles Havergal.
Giles Havergal
(Photo: Aaron Epstein)
Thomas Mann's short story about an elderly man's obsession over a young boy is a work of exquisite craftsmanship. It takes like-minded talents to bring this work of gentle sorrow to the stage. It requires discipline and respect on their part to avoid the temptation to add large emotions where Mann's subtleties are called for. Amazingly, The Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow has accomplished what would seem nearly impossible. They have brought this extraordinary work to the stage intact. The beauty and the haunting delicacy of the original is maintained, communicated with heart-breaking restraint in a tour-de-force performance by Giles Havergal.

Giles Havergal plays the repressed aesthete Aschenbach, along with a number of Venetian porters, tourists, and gondoliers, creating the full tapestry of Mann's depiction of Italy as seen through the eyes of a German intellectual on holiday. Havergal, who both performs and directs, offers an enthralling performance, at once courteous and cautious as Aschenbach, and then magnificently obsequious as the Italian hotelier. Havergal produces the appropriate accents, along with gestures. In one, he holds his arms tightly to his sides, while in the other he gesticulates like a madman. The audience gasps as it watches this extraordinarily versatile actor play characters of different nationalities, social classes, and ages. The standing ovation offered Mr. Havergal was the first I've seen that was as energetic as it was deserved.

Nothing can be faulted in this production. The play itself, adapted by Robert David MacDonald, is a model of concision. David Luke's translation is contemporary, while maintaining Mann's somewhat pre-modern elegance of expression. The play opens and closes with Havergal performing the role of narrator at the tomb of Aschenbach who, of course, has recently died. He faces Aschenbach's tomb, down stage, center, and turns to face the audience. He then puts on a pair of glasses, shrinks a few inches, and assumes the role of Aschenbach himself.

The set by Philip Witcomb is spare and elegant. On stage right, a large bowl of strawberries rests on a high pedestal; while on the left can be seen Aschenbach's office chair and typewriter. Both the strawberries and the typewriter have dramatic purposes. Across the back of the stage runs a water system which is used to create the sounds of fountains in the numerous piazzas which Aschenbach visits on his extensive and ultimately doomed walks. Zerlina Hughes's lighting brings on enchantment or menace as called for. In fact, much of the success of this production can be attributed to the perfection of Ms Hughes's design.

Love seems to be very much on the minds of this year's theatergoers. With the papers full of priests and their accusers, and this year's Tony going to a play about a man who finds love in a barnyard, perhaps it is time to revisit Mann's classic. One can always read the text, but this is surely a rare opportunity to hear and see Mann's masterpiece brought to life.

Written by Thomas Mann.
Adapted by Robert David MacDonald.
Original Translation by David Luke.
Director: Giles Havergal.

Cast: Giles Havergal.
Scenic & Costume Design: Philip Witcomb.
Lighting Design: Zerlina Hughes.
Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Manhattan Ensemble Theater, 55 Mercer Street, New York (212) 925-1900.
Opens 6/04/2002 thru 6/30/02. Tues through Sat at 8pm; Sun. at 3pm.
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 6/08/02.
.Tue - Sat @8PM, Sun @3PM--$40 .
5/2/02-6/30/02; opening 6/4/02 Our Review
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