Paul T Davies reviews Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Durrenmatt’s play The Visit now playing at the National Theatre, London.
13 February 2020
Tony Kushner is a playwright not known for his brevity, as we fans of Angels in America are very aware. Big ideas, big themes, he does love a debate, and his adaptation of Durrenmatt’s The Visit has lost thirty minutes since previews, but still clocks in at three hours 40 minutes. When Claire Zachanassian, The Old Lady Who Comes to Call, returns to her home town of Slurry, she is the richest woman in the world and offers the poor citizens a billion dollars if they carry out one request. To kill her teenage sweetheart, Alfred Ill, who gets her pregnant, denied paternity, bribed his friends to say she was promiscuous, the cause of her leaving the town penniless and shunned. Revenge is sweet, and so are money and a comfortable lifestyle.
The good news is that Lesley Manville is in the lead, here channelling 1950s Movie heroines and wronged women, having great fun with artificial limbs and some snappy one-liners. In her blonde wig and vocal patterns, there is more than a touch of Baby Jane, and there’s even a nod to Bette Davis in Now Voyager. Claire arrives with an entourage, including a panther, and Manville is great, campy fun in the first half, skilfully showing her love for Alfred, and how that has dominated and scarred her life, as the play progresses. Hugo Weaving is equally good as Alfred, facing up to not just the horror of being a marked man, but the consequences of his actions. There’s a terrific turn by Nicholas Woodeson as the Mayor, selling Alfred down the road to save his town, and Sara Kestelman shines as Principal Covington, the moral compass of the play even when sloshed on vodka.
However, the play is a stodgy mess, and much more cutting would improve it no end. The blind Vaudeville double act are annoying and can be culled immediately, and there is a love duet in Act Three that is completely unnecessary, and Kushner often repeats himself. As with part two of Angles in America, as the play moves towards what should be a climax, drama is sidelined for discussion, much of it interesting, but much of it already made. After a very good Act One, the play, despite some great train action by the designer and crew, goes off the rails, and director Jeremy Herrin struggles to tame the rambling script. A post-industrial American town on its uppers recalled Nottage’s excellent play Sweat, and, just up the road at the Young Vic, Stef Smith’s Nora demonstrates how debt does not free people in a zippy 1 hour 45.
The National has thrown everything at this play, but no amount of good acting, live jazz music during the transitions, and the might of the Olivier crew, can compensate for the gaping problem at the heart of the play: that Claire states about twenty minutes into the action what will happen, and some three hours twenty minutes later, that is exactly what we witness! No surprises and no twists, I couldn’t help but think we could have arrived at the same conclusion a little quicker.
Until 13 May 2020.