The Pram in the Hallway
by Ramsey Nasr
after Thomas Mann
directed by Ivo van Hove
‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway,’ Cyril Connolly controversially quoted. In Ivo van Hove’s production of Death In Venice, the pram begins even closer: right next to the writing desk. Suggesting both distraction and inspiration, it is a profound and disturbing touch with regards to the pederasty at the centre of this story.
Thomas Mann’s fevered novella concerns Gustav von Aschenbach, a celebrated author who finds himself mysteriously drawn to the Lido island in Venice. Here he is intrigued by a beautiful young boy, Tadzio, who at first appeals to the writer’s Apollonian values. But this fascination quickly devolves into obsession as he follows the unwitting youth from street to beach, tussling with Platonic ideals and a pounding heart. Contracting cholera, Aschenbach’s febrile descent leaves him a skeleton of a man, rattling with infatuation. It is a moving and troubling tale that has won its spurs in Britten’s final opera and the Hamburg Ballet alike. Its adaptation for the stage proves a trickier matter.
Van Hove takes several bold risks in the staging. First, the entire Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra are located at the rear of the Carré’s majestic stage. This proves inspired in certain moments. When Aschenbach first sees Tadzio, the gauze on the musicians lifts and Yuriy Mynenko’s sublime counter-tenor emerges with an exquisite ballad. At other times this conceit inhibits the action of the drama. There is a sense of the performers waiting on the music, rather than organically interacting beneath it. The second risk is twinning Aschenbach’s protagonist on stage with the character of Thomas Mann himself. This allows for some undeniably lovely meta-moments: Aschenbach’s slow dawning that Mann intends for him to fall in love with the boy, or the smile between the two when an instance of lost luggage keeps the action in Venice. Best of all is the moment towards the end of the play when Mann realises he must kill his darling, and the two men unite in artistic sacrifice at a glass coffin, a literary Abraham and Isaac.
But, like the onstage orchestra, this double-act raises problems of its own. The presence of both creator and created congests the narrative. It erects a barrier between audience and performer, and also the performers themselves. This is no doubt to highlight the well-documented idea that Mann was exorcising his own obsession – for the beautiful boy in Venice was real, and here his wife is painfully aware of it. Mann is an artist drawn to the abyss, and is driven to explore it, even to the detriment of his personal life. “A being like me should not bring children into this world,” he says – and yet he does, in the shape of his novella. Whether or not this striking idea is capable of sustaining such a sumptuous production is uncertain.
Jan Versweyveld’s scenography and David Robertson’s musical direction provide less equivocal wonders. An intricate steam whistle and shimmering gong initiate Aschenbach’s journey, while a long lobster tank filled with delicate glass whirligigs become Venice’s waterways. A forest of glowing brocade lamps and potted palms surround the orchestra, conveying the grandeur of the Grand Hôtel des Baines. Meanwhile the superb costumes of An D’Huys hang from golden boughs, like the fruit of Tantalus.
Ramsey Nasr, who also provides the text, is charming as Aschenbach, the hapless protagonist under Mann’s sorcery. Along with his increasingly anguished portrayal, he also adds some much-needed misfit comedy. When a strawberry-seller asks how many of the doomed fruit he would like, his timidity in the presence of Tadzio is summed up in a simple, hilarious “Uno.” Marieke Heebink is an elegant delight as both Mann’s wife Katja and Tadzio’s mother, both women in a sense the guardians of the boy. As Katya she delivers a speech about her first meeting with Mann, her giddiness giving way to the lament of a woman usurped by her husband’s pen. By the end she remains stoically by his side, the tiller to his storm-tossed boat. Aus Greidanus Jr. is excellent as the chameleonic character of the gondolier, here named Charon in a sly nod to the ferryman of Greek myth. And Steven Van Watermeulen as Mann himself, raw-eyed and glowering, holds the stage like a tortured titan. He makes the best of his incursions onto the stage and into the story – grappling with the beautiful Tadzio and his friends while Aschenbach lingers on the edge, waiting to be invited into the throng of his author’s fantasy.
Yet these fine performances cannot bridge the problems of emotional discordance. The most revealing moment of difficulty in this staging is Aschenbach’s orgiastic dream of the boy. Words on the page or notes on a string can convey something of this sexual capitulation: here a man and boy rolling about on a stage of sand does not convey the illicit climax to satisfaction.
“Solitude,” Mann wrote, “produces originality, bold and astonishing beauty, poetry. But solitude also produces perverseness, the disproportionate, the absurd, and the forbidden.” Van Hove’s Death In Venice falls somewhere between the two camps. For anyone in the business of creating art, there can be found a fascination here, dark and shining. Perhaps this is what tempted van Hove to plunge into the abyss that Mann confesses he is drawn to. A dazzling spectacle, but lacking the purifying catharsis that great theatre can provide.
photos | ©Jan Versweyveld