The National Theatre presents a new adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s revenge thriller, The Visit, by Tony Kushner, which investigates just how far one would go for money in an age of consumerism and capitalism.
In Germany, Swiss Dürrenmatt’s tragicomedy Der Besuch der alten Dame (The Visit or The Old Lady Comes to Call) is compulsory reading in most high schools. I vividly remember reading it in turns with my friend over the phone one afternoon and although it has been almost 10 years since, the in-depth analysis of the play in class had me remembering many elements and aroused my curiosity for the staging of this new adaptation directed by Jeremy Herrin. Originally set in the small, fictional European town of Güllen in 1956, Dürrenmatt’s play tells of Claire Zachanassian (Lesley Manville) who returns to her impoverished hometown as the richest woman in the world and promises wealth and prosperity to its inhabitants in the form of one billion pounds. The immediate jubilance is marred when she reveals the one condition the town – or one of its citizens – must meet for this grand offer, and it’s to do with Alfred Ill (Hugo Weaving), her former lover.
In his new adaptation, American playwright Kushner (Angels in America) transfers the spatial setting from Güllen in Europe to Slurry in New York, while remaining, temporally, in 1956. Spatiality is one of the most important aspects of the production. Slurry – evoked in the first scene by Vicki Mortimer’s set of a scanty railway station featuring grey concrete, steel constructions, and full-on steam – not only indicates the train’s, and thus Claire’s, arrival but also paints the suburban space as a familiar, run-down, poor factory town which is at odds with Claire Zachanassian’s extravagance and rank. Her entourage includes a coffin and a panther, only one of which, unfortunately, is used as an element for foreshadowing.
Drawing upon the solidarity, or lack thereof, in a small town, the play depends on a large ensemble, and frequently switches between this and two-hander scenes, primarily between Manville and Weaving. When Manville is on stage, all eyes are on her, not only because she is the central character and has a strong stage presence, but because the world, meaning the townspeople, revolves around her. Manville’s performance leaves no doubt as to how the play will go down: her Claire is extravagant, eccentric, and eloquent, and she manages to make her entertaining and tragic at the same time. Her authority turns the townspeople into more servants (in addition to the ones she already brought, including Husband #7, a couple of blind strollers, and a butler, only one of whom is really new to town) whom she can manipulate and move around as chess pieces with the aim to get the king, i.e. Alfred, in check. She is classy, intellectual and intelligent, as reflected in her black-and-white wardrobe by costume designer Moritz Junge. She or rather her aim of revenge are never out of sight; she is seen often lurking over the townspeople on stage from a semicircular catwalk above, literally looking down on a hometown that caused her so much misery 45 years ago. Manville provides an excellent, captivating performance that results in a devitalised, somewhat dreary atmosphere whenever she is not on stage. Weaving’s Alfred is slightly too nonchalant and monochrome, whereas Nicholas Woodeson as the Mayor and Sara Kestelman as the school principal provide poignant performances.
With all the moving happening on stage and Herrin making use of all the Olivier Theatre has to offer, the spatial move across the Atlantic is not at all necessary. Dürrenmatt’s play is already quite universal; its motifs of revenge, capitalism, morality, and the limits of solidarity are not exclusively European, nor are they American, making the new location rather arbitrary and unsolicited. The play’s commentary on American consumerism and capitalism is never strong and explicit enough to justify the relocation; it fails to link the urban crisis, economic struggles, and deindustrialisation to the fictional town of Slurry as an example for small-town Northeast America in the 1950s. While Kushner’s adaptation lacks in these regards, Herrin doesn’t add as much as he could have to the scene. The primarily British cast trying to pass as Americans is not particularly successful and makes the play quite grotesque. It’s likely to have worked much better had Claire returned to Güllen and not Slurry. At times, the set indicates the American setting, for example through the use of neon signs and the hotel stage displaying the stars and stripes. The musicians seen through a lit window, playing live in a small room on stage, emphasises the 50s New York state atmosphere, with their jazz and blues music directed by Malcolm Edmonstone. Still, it doesn’t all add up and remains rather un-American. Amidst Brexit, the decision against Europe and for the States appears even more controversial, making a(n unconscious?) political statement.
Despite its lengthy run of over 3.5hrs, a pivotal element of Dürrenmatt’s play was cut: the hunt for Claire’s panther, a striking metaphor and pivotal plot device in the original. Although it could have been victim to the striking out of several scenes and pieces of dialogue in order to shorten the still long play, it would have certainly added to Claire’s revenge motif and brought some excitement and movement to an otherwise rather tame adaptation.
She who has the gold, makes the rules. Considering many current affairs and scandals, The Visit proves that this proverb still holds true, maybe has never been truer until now. Hence, it would have been more refreshing to see the play transferred to a contemporary setting. Regardless, a remarkable performance by Lesley Manville, some crafty dialogues, and the universal question of the worth of money might make it worthwhile to sit through a play that’s almost four hours long.
The Visit is showing at the National Theatre’s Olivier stage until 13 May. For more information, to purchase Kushner’s play or Dürrenmatt’s original (in an English translation by Maurice Valency), and to book tickets, click here.