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Giles Havergal - Travels With My Aunt

"My God!” beams the rangy figure towering over the foyer of the Citizens Theatre, “I bet you thought you had a date with Lazarus!"

Giles Havergal's presence announces itself with unbridled glee. For a man whose well turned out appearance was a one-man reception committee on every opening night during his thirty-three years in charge of the Gorbals-based institution between 1969 and 2003, it's as if he's never been away.

Havergal has just been getting his picture taken in the theatre's auditorium, where he and his co-artistic directors Robert David MacDonald and Philip Prowse created so much remarkable work as they defined the Citz's flamboyant style over three decades. In the corner of the foyer, tucked away en route to the toilets, images of Havergal, MacDonald and Prowse hang side by side like maids in a row. They were taken not long before all three men departed the institution they'd put on the international theatre map as a new era was ushered in.

Almost a decade and a half on, Havergal has spent the morning at the read-through of Philip Breen's new main-stage production of Travels with My Aunt, Havergal's bespoke four-man dramatisation of Graham Greene's 1969 novel. In some ways, Greene's yarn concerning the belated liberation of one Henry Pulling, the repressed middle-aged bank manager shown the world and its ways by his wild-living Aunt Augusta, was the perfect Citz play.

Havergal himself directed and appeared in the Citizens' original 1989 production, marking the beginning of an adventure almost as extraordinary as the one Henry undertakes as the play quickly travelled to London and New York, picking up an Olivier award en route. After almost thirty years, Travels With My Aunt continues to be regularly revived at home and abroad as a quietly subversive rep staple.

“It was irresistible,” Havergal says. “I always say it's the biggest vanity project that ever was, to adapt it, direct it and play the two leads in it. It was a very beguiling thing to be asked to do, - to ask myself to do – to play the two parts of Henry and Augusta. I would have hated to have done either of them without the other one, because Henry's tremendously kind of uptight, and has a physical lack of everything, contrasting with the aunt, and that made it a tremendous and delicious challenge to play.”

Havergal's adaptation was initially forged out of the economic necessity of a cash-strapped Citz trying to stay afloat. The story contained within Travels With My Aunt explored the conflicting social mores of its time in a way that both Greenites and theatrephiles continue to lap up.

The answer to its longevity is Graham Greene,” Havergal says. “It's just such a good story, and the dialogue is so good. Every word is him. He is still a very potent writer, and that particular title still has resonance for people. I think they either remember the book, or even remember the film. Of course, in these straitened times it's economical with just four guys and so on, but I think the actual subject matter, of coming to terms with new cultures, is still of interest. In that time, 1969, when it was written, everyone was coming to terms with Pot and long hair and wide trousers and all that. I think that sort of uncertainty, about being led into another culture by somebody else, is as potent now as it's ever been.

It also has tremendous moral ambiguity, because of course, in the end, Henry is seduced by the aunt setting up in South America, but he's become a criminal, really. He's working for Mr Visconti, who's a drug runner and a smuggler and an embezzler. That's what's so clever about Graham Greene. You're rooting for the aunt all the time, and you're wanting her to crack him open and stop him being such a stuffed shirt, but actually, he's a morally very respectable man and a bank manager, and there he is at the end wearing dark glasses and he's part of the mafia. That ambiguity, it's partly liberation, but it also leads you to something else if you're not careful. The fact that it was written in 1969 important as well.”

Greene's novel may have arrived at the fag end of the swinging sixties just as things turned darker, but its appearance chimed too with Havergal's arrival in Glasgow after four years in charge of the Watford Palace Theatre. What followed were three decades of intellectually driven theatrical daring and bravura which left its mark, both on audiences and the theatre's alumni.

Upstairs in a corner next to the theatre's Circle Studio bar, we sit at one of the theatre's fabulous tables on which iconic images of some of the Citz's legendary alumni are laid out beneath the glass. There's a peri-wigged Gary Oldman and a foppish looking Rupert Everett. There's a slicked-back Pierce Brosnan squinting over a cigarette. Glenda Jackson is there too, as is a young Mark Rylance.

"There are some of these images that are post-me," says Havergal, pointing to a picture of Miriam Margolyes in Breen's 2011 production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg with a forensic sense of recall, "and there are some pre-me." He nods to an image of Duncan Macrae, and to one of James Bridie, the original founder of the Citizens before Havergal and co went on to reinvent it as a European arthouse and purveyor of literary classics in excelsis. Then there are the images of Havergal himself, looking stern in Death in Venice, and then, at the table's centre, an image from Travels with My Aunt.

"That's when we did the second run in 1990," he says, running his finger over the glass covered image, "because Gavin Mitchell took over from Chris Gee, although Chris Gee went on to do it in London."

Seen together, all this visual magnificence on one tabletop is a crucial part of Havergal's legacy. Now aged a still energetic seventy-eight, he is keeping as busy as he ever did, modestly playing down how “lucky” he is to be employed. He's about to direct a restoration comedy at RADA, and is not long back from San Francisco, where he worked with acting students on a stripped-down version of Romeo and Juliet which toured to schools.

It's really interesting to go into one of those big high schools, great big barns of a places, often playing to three to four hundred Hispanic kids, and it's certainly their first Shakespeare, and may well be their last. You've got that whole responsibility, not only to the students I'm kind of directing, but also the responsibility that we as a group have to the school-kids.”

As a model for the exercise, Havergal looked to TAG, the Citz's old theatre in education arm.

In San Francisco we played in every conceivable type of room, canteens, gyms, often in rooms no bigger than this, so we just take a square on the floor, with no scenery, no lights, no sound, nothing.”

Havergal praises the Citz' now extensive community and outreach programme, and indeed the theatre's seeming rude health under current artistic director Dominic Hill that Havergal's lengthy reign paved the way for.

I just feel fantastically privileged to have been able to do all that,” Havergal says. “The thirty-three years I was here went in a flash. I was thinking that just yesterday arriving here, it doesn't feel like thirty-three years at all. You just think, weren't we all lucky? Weren't we all lucky to find each other, and weren't we all lucky to land here, where it was possible to do it? I keep saying, even the bad times – of which there were lots – were good. So I have no regrets. I don't have funny feelings coming back here at all.”

In describing the contradictions at the heart of Travels With My Aunt, Havergal could be talking about the moral tug of love which fuelled the Citz when he was in charge.

“Hedonism versus compliance,” he says. “I think it's an age-old struggle. There's something in us all that would love to get blind drunk and run stark naked down Buchanan Street. Then there's the other side of us that wants to be absolutely respectable, and be on the board of the local school and all that, and I think that pull between the two sort of reflects something that's in all of us. We all want to throw our hats over the fence, but we either can't, or maybe we disapprove of people who do that, which is where Henry starts. That may be even more what it's about, the pull between behaving appallingly, having a good time, and being rather immoral, against being careful. I think that's an argument that exists in everyone. Isn't it?”

Travels With My Aunt, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, May 3-20.



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