Wednesday 12 February 2020

Theatre Review: The Visit (National Theatre)

"I don't know how long this visit will take," says Lesley Manville as Claire Zachanassian, imperious anti-heroine of Freidrich Dürrenmatt’s  The Visit, to the posse of townspeople who've been eagerly awaiting her arrival.

Audiences at this equally anticipated show - which presents Tony Kushner's new version of Dürrenmatt’s text in a production by Jeremy Herrin - could express the same sentiment. Originally coming in at a whopping 4 hours, Herrin's production has shed 30 minutes during its preview period and might get shorter yet. (Press Night is this Thursday.) It should, for while the show zips by excitingly for most of its duration, a still-overextended final Act indulges in an excess of Kushnerian speechifying and features directorial decisions that dissipate the tension just when the drama ought to be reaching a pitch.

Dürrenmatt’s plays are seldom performed in the UK - I only dimly remember Josie Rourke's production of The Physicists at the Donmar in 2012 - and The Visit hasn't been done in London since Complicité's production in the early 1990s. It's not hard to see why: among its idiosyncrasies, the play boasts a heroine - reckoned to be the richest woman in the world - who returns to her hometown accompanied by an entourage that includes a coffin, a panther and two blind eunuchs (played here, with panache, as a sinisterly upbeat Vaudevillian duo by Paul Gladwin and Louis Martin). 

Still, the play's focus on a gender-based reckoning in Claire's revenge on the man, Alfred Ill, who wronged her by impregnating her then denying paternity chimes with a modish #MeToo-ish emphasis on "toxic masculinity," female power and retrospective retribution, and, as adapted by Kushner, the material feels fresh. 

The playwright has very much claimed the property as his own, replacing the Swiss-German's Mitteleuropa absurdism with baroque Americana. The action is now relocated to post-war, recession-afflicted Slurry, New York, where the townspeople find themselves in a moral quandary when Claire arrives bearing  a billionaire dollars in exchange for a particular deed: namely, the murder of Alfred. 

While Michael Billington has suggested that the play might be read as a specific political parable, "reflecting on Switzerland's ambiguous relationship with Nazi Germany and on the wealth it acquired during the war," the new context works well, allowing Kushner to critique his own country's corruption and consumerist turn in ways that connect to his previous work, in particular his masterpiece Caroline, or Change, which heartbreakingly laid bare the economic underpinnings of human relationships. 

Billington also reckons that The Visit "gains from being staged with a resonant simplicity." But that's not the kind of production that Herrin provides. This Visit is busy, with Vicki Mortimer's teeming set spinning the action from train station to wood to store to town hall to graveyard. At times the resources seem used in an ostentatious, not-especially-expressive way, and perhaps some cuts already made to the production have resulted in the large cast of supernumeraries seeming surplus to requirements. Still, the heart of the piece lies in Claire's confrontations with the community, especially Alfred, and these scenes are brilliantly mined for comedy and tension here. 

Emerging like a vision from a cloud of train smoke, a white-haired, luxuriously costumed (by Moritz Junge) Lesley Manville gives a performance that is everything you could wish for. Either imposingly still or moving jerkily on artificial legs, relishing bitchy quips and well-composed arias about time and love's corruption, Manville operates in a completely different register from the beautiful naturalism of her most recent film role as the cancer-afflicted wife in Ordinary Love (2019) or her last NT role in Mike Leigh's great, underrated Grief (2011). An actress who's still taking risks, her stylization here brings freshness and drive to the stage: she does bold things I've never seen her do - like sticking her rump out to Hugo Weaving's Alfred on their first encounter and meowing in pleasure as he responds.

Weaving partners her perfectly throughout, his gruffness giving way to poetic rapture as he recalls the animalistic passion of their teenage trysts, and then dissolving into fear and paranoia (or is it...?) as he senses the town turning against him.

Of the large ensemble, Sara Kestelman - whose composed, pedantic teacher degenerates hilariously into a drunken mess - Richard Durden as a Justice-turned-butler, Nicholas Woodeson as the blustering Mayor, and Joseph Mydell as the Episcopalian Reverand  stand out. (It's hard to imagine seeing better "reaction acting" this year than Kestelman and Mydell's priceless responses to Claire and Alfred's reminiscences about their sexual past.) Meanwhile, Paul Englishby's fabulous score threads sneaky, jazzy, noirish textures throughout the action. 

With so much to enjoy, the final section's slackness is especially disappointing. The production doesn't go off the rails as badly as The Welkin, but there's a sense of anticlimax as Kushner resorts to shrill media satire - over-directed here - that lessens the impact of the vote scene and its aftermath - along with repetitious, patience-testing rhetoric. The play's revelation of a romantic dimension to Claire's revenge plot is not satisfying, either. If its final section can be tightened and finessed then this will be one of the stronger productions of the year. If not, then Herrin and his collaborators have still crafted a Visit worth making, one that offers the pleasures of both a glittering star performance and great ensemble work. 

The Visit is booking until 13 May at the National Theatre. 

Photos: Johan Persson

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