The National Theatre is showcasing Tony Kushner’s much awaited adaptation of The Visit, writes Christopher Walker.
This puzzling tragi-comedy will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea, even if serious students of drama should make the effort to take in this three-and-a-half hour production.
Fortunately we have two strong leads in Lesley Manville and Hugo Weaving. They just about get us through.
The Visit is one of those worthy plays in German that came out in the aftermath of the Second World war.
The author was Friedrich Durrenmatt, a failed Swiss philosopher who turned to the stage to walk out his wits and vent his anger.
More shocking than funny, ‘dark comedy’ does not begin to describe it. The movie version with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, was a critical success but a box office flop. There’s even been a musical starring Chita Rivera on Broadway. Both of these were thankfully well under two hours.
Brevity is not the hallmark of Tony Kushner (Angels in America).
He has taken Maurice Valery’s American version of the play and stretched it. The rather predictable plot concerns the return of a fabulously rich woman Claire Zachanassian to the small impoverished town she grew up in, here called “Slurry”, “Gullen” or ‘liquid manure’ in the original German. You get the picture.
Ms Zachanassian ably played by Lesley Manville there encounters her first love Alfred III – the excellent Hugo Weaving.
We gradually learn their relationship is not straightforward. Alfred impregnated Claire when she was just 16, denied his paternity in court and thus condemned her to prostitution, cast out by the townsfolk.
The people of Slurry begin by welcoming Ms Zachanassian in anticipation of charity, but she herself is dedicated to wreaking a cruel revenge. She does offer the town huge largesse $1 billion but only on condition that the citizens murder her old lover.
As if that’s not dark enough we encounter Zachanassian’s surreal entourage. A sinister butler Boby – Richard Durden, two eunuchs Loby and Roby(x and y in a haunting cameo), and two criminals transformed into footmen carrying her sedan chair – Doby and Koby.
Oh and Zachanassian needs that chair because she has lost parts of her body in her travels.
In the original, Zachanassian’s character is making a feminist point – Swiss women were denied the vote in until the 1970s, they were literally handicapped.
The Faustian bargain she forces on the townsfolk is therefore her revenge on a patriarchal society, and a reference to the growth of Switzerland’s secret bank accounts in the war.
Both of these points are lost in this version – a key character, the town schoolmaster, is here made a woman.
In “Slurry” we rather see the post-industrial American rustbelt, starved of capital by “red lining.”
In real life a $1 billion was indeed distributed to small towns in New York State as part of America’s urban renewal plan (1949-71), though no murders were required in return. This had little effect and the US is stills struggling to find solutions – a recent $200 million grant to one forgotten town, Dunkirk NY, was the equivalent of $133,000 for each
The main left-wing candidate to succeed President Trump, Bernie Sanders, promises further urban renewal funded from “the pockets of the billionaire class.”
There’s a lot of politics in the theatre at present – we sometimes feel more lectured than entertained. As you would expect of the National Theatre the staging is very professional, the costumes well done, and the cast enormous. One assumes the budget is of Zachanassian proportions.
Go to www.nationaltheatre or call 020 7452 3000 for the latest information regarding scheduling.
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