Last Updated on February 23, 2020 by Fiona Maclean
Tony Kushner’s new adaptation of The Visit.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s classic 1956 play The Visit (or The Old Lady Comes to Call) has been adapted by acclaimed North American playwright Tony Kushner, best known for writing the celebrated 1992 play ‘Angels in America’. Here Kushner has transported the story from central Europe to mid-20th-century America in a fictional crumbling town in New York state called Slurry.
1955 and Slurry is down on its luck; it’s faded and gloomy and is in the throes of post-war depression. Vicky Mortimer’s beautifully atmospheric set successfully transports you to this grey industrial town, which opens on a ramshackle railway station where the townsfolk are awaiting a very special guest. And it certainly sends sparks flying when the world’s wealthiest woman Claire Zachanassian returns to her hometown Slurry offering hope and the opportunity to turn around its fortunes. Claire is played with exceptional brilliance by Lesley Manville whose outrageous brassy Greek goddess of a character, is what really shines throughout, and you can’t get enough of her, a cross between Betty Davis and Bette Midler with a touch of Madonna, she’s dressed to the nines and commands the stage in series of fabulous costumes (credit to Moritz Junge).
Claire certainly brings colour to the town, but her visit is not all it seems, she has returned to seek revenge on her childhood sweetheart Alfred, the much-loved local grocer who by this time is well married with two teenage children. Hugo Weaving makes a wonderfully ordinary, slightly gruff Alfred, who has lived a pretty unremarkable life. However, he holds a guilty secret of wrongdoing going back 45 years, which Claire fully intends to publicly share and she has returned to and seek revenge and settle the vendetta once and for all. She lays bare the historical facts and asks the townsfolk to join together in a violent act against Alfred, and in return, she will give them one billion dollars, enough to change their lives and fortunes forever.
The people are torn…. first comes morality and loyalty and then fast in its footsteps comes greed. The shopping on credit begins and consumerism takes hold, the local mayor is planning a new town hall, dealing with futures with death as a commodity. Alfred becomes understandably paranoid, will the people he has grown up amongst turn on him?
The renowned director Jeremy Herrin, previously artistic director of Headlong, and the talent behind ‘People Places and Things’, ‘The Nether’ and recent West End production of ‘Noises Off ‘ takes the reins and stylishly brings Kushner’s epic playoff the page onto the expanse of the Olivier stage at the National Theatre.
The Visit is a powerful parable for our times, a tragicomedy and a morality play which is Shakespearean in scope. Claire almost transcends time representing a supernatural figure who plays with life and death, she returns with wealth, a wounded heart and a burning fury which she unleashes in the form of the ultimate retribution on humankind.
Themes of love, avarice, and revenge give Kushner it plenty to play with, it’s wry, dark and very funny at times and the tender scene in the final act between Claire and Alfred in the forest gives insight into the love they once shared, which is beautifully performed and remarkably moving. A large cast of 30 play the townsfolk, including a town choir and child gymnasts and there are notably good performances from local teacher Sara Kestelman and the greed-driven Town Mayor Nicholas Woodeson.
The music is very era-specific with a great jazzy ensemble playing Paul Englishby’s evocative score. However, this production really overruns its course, and it plods along for much of time, running for over three and a half hours, a great shame as it has all the elements for a cracking good show, with Manville giving the performance of her life.
The Visit is in rep at the Olivier, National Theatre until May 13 2020
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