By the Book
Giles Havergal's stage adaptation transcribes the source novel way too much
Published: September 8, 2010
Travels With My Aunt
By Graham Greene, adapted by Giles Havergal
It’s easy to understand why someone would want to adapt Travels With My Aunt for the stage, for it’s one of Graham Greene’s most entertaining novels, where the most outlandish events are made plausible by a very dry wit. It’s less easy to understand why theaters keep staging Giles Havergal’s adaptation of the book, for the Scottish actor/director bungled the job so badly.
Havergal not only failed to find a theatrical equivalent for the book’s fiction, it appears he didn’t even try very hard. Vast chunks of the novel are simply transferred from page to script, not just the dialogue but also the interior monologues, prose exposition, visual description, and even the use of “he said” and “she said.” This is mildly amusing the first time it happens, deadly dull the third time, and excruciating the 30th and 40th times. Instead of allowing the actors to express with their voices, faces, and gestures what Greene explained in his asides, Havergal simply regurgitates the novel’s prose.
Like so many actors who try to become playwrights, Havergal is more concerned with creating opportunities for actors to show off their technique than he is in telling an emotionally cohesive story for the audience. As a result, the show’s most appealing aspect is its stunt casting: four males play all the characters, from the titular Aunt Augusta to an Irish wolfhound. They all get a chance to play the protagonist Henry Pulling, often at the same time.
The Rep Stage production opens in a glass-domed atrium in a London suburb where Henry, a retired bank manager, sits sipping his tea and reading the morning paper in a buttoned-up gray suit and blue tie. Soon all four actors are sitting in the same atrium, sipping the same tea, reading the same paper, and wearing the same suit and tie. Director Kasi Campbell’s striking image conveys everything you need to know about the dull repetition of Henry’s life. Everything changes that afternoon, however, when he attends his mother’s funeral. One of the four actors becomes the minister, a second becomes a distant cousin, and a third becomes Augusta.
This is not a Charles Ludlam show, full of frantic costume and wig changes. Actor Nigel Reed, still in his short red hair and tailored gray suit, simply plants his right hand on his hip coquettishly, edges one knee in front of the other, raises the pitch of his voice slightly, and becomes Augusta. It’s a more impressive example of cross-gender acting than anything in Everyman Theatre’s The Mystery of Irma Vep. She immediately launches into an inappropriate story of how she once disrupted a funeral by accidentally pushing the wrong button and sending the casket into the crematorium before the minister had begun the service.
She waits for Henry to collect his mother’s ashes and then drags him off to her house for a drink and more surprising revelations. She blurts out that Henry’s mother, her remains sitting in a brown parcel in Henry’s lap, was not really his mother, though his father had created many candidates for the position. Though Augusta is 75, she flirts openly with her African valet, saucily telling Henry that Wordsworth “attends to my wants.” The short, pale-faced, bushy-browed Lawrence Redmond not only convinces that he’s a burly gigolo from Sierra Leone but also that he’s developed real feelings for his septuagenarian mistress. The next day the police are knocking at Henry’s door, insisting on looking at the funeral ashes, which have been largely replaced by Wordsworth’s stash of marijuana. To avoid further questioning, Henry and Augusta are soon on the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul.
The atrium set never changes, but chairs and tables have been shoved together to suggest the sleeping compartment in a train. Bill Largess plays the plump, balding Henry, increasingly bewildered as Augusta tells stories about a church for dogs and a love affair with a Nazi collaborator. In the facing bunk is Tooley, an 18-year-old American girl fleeing her CIA father for an ashram in Kathmandu. In a cross-gender acting feat even more impressive than Reed’s, Tooley is played by Michael Russotto, an actor who resembles Alfred Molina in both face and bulk. To watch this enormous man in a gray suit turn into a flower girl worried about missing her period is to be so diverted that you nearly forget the script’s weaknesses.
But there’s no ignoring them for long. As soon as some witty dialogue pulls you into the story, a huge chunk of undigested prose is dumped onto the stage to ruin the mood. Whether the mystery involves smuggled gold in Turkey, stolen art in Paraguay, or the identity of Henry’s mother, Havergal manages to kill the suspense every time. Unless you’re a fan of quick-change acting, you’re much better off reading the book. ■