Theatre review: The Visit

Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Swiss classic The Visit, transported to 1950s America, poses the question: how much would you kill for?

The Visit, Adapted by Tony Kushner from a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Directed by Jeremy Herrin, Running at the National Theatre until 13 May

There’s an old joke about Lord Beaverbrook asking someone he met at a party if she was willing to sleep with him for a million dollars. When she replied that she was, he asked her if she was willing to sleep with him for $100. “What do you think I am?” the woman replied. “We’ve already established what you are. All we’re doing is bargaining about price.” The Visit, adapted by Tony Kushner from a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and currently running at the National Theatre, makes the case that, like the woman in the joke, everyone has a price.

The new adaptation moves the action from Switzerland to Slurry, a fictional town in upstate New York, in the 1950s. The postwar shift to the suburbs has decimated the local economy, leaving Slurry’s city government bankrupt. The town pins its hopes on a visit from Claire Zachanassian (Lesley Manville), the wealthiest woman in the world, who grew up there. Zachanassian promises a huge amount of money to be split between the town and its individual inhabitants, but on one condition – that they kill her former lover (Hugo Weaving), who abandoned her while she was pregnant. The shocked townspeople initially refuse, but they quickly begin to have second thoughts.

It’s safe to say that the ultimate destination of the play is clear from the moment it begins. But the skill of this adaptation is in making the journey arresting. Director Jeremy Herrin draws excellent performances from his cast, especially from Manville, who is commanding and vengeful but also able to show flashes of twisted affection. Weaving effectively portrays a man aware of his fate, but unable to summon up the courage to leave the town. Some of the secondary characters, especially Nicholas Woodeson as the mayor and Sara Kestelman as a teacher, are also compelling.

Some people might balk at the running time, which is nearly four hours when you factor in the two intervals. But fear not, there really is no moment when the production begins to sag. This is partly due to the writing and the acting, but it is also due to the production values, especially Paul Englishby’s haunting noir soundtrack, as well as the set, which evokes the period. There are also some nicely dark comic flourishes – the two minions who accompany Zachanassian wherever she goes and the vaudeville chorus of two blind eunuchs (Simon Startin and Paul Gladwin), who have already felt the force of Zachanassian’s vengeance, are amusing. 

The Visit is a strong and powerful tragicomedy and an indictment of the corrupting influence of money and the corrosive effects on the modern economy when it is driven by access to cheap credit.

Recommended

Disasters, bunkers and financial collapse: a little not-so-light holiday reading
Books

Disasters, bunkers and financial collapse: a little not-so-light holiday reading

Merryn Somerset Webb picks a selection of books for you to dive into wherever you are holidaying this summer.
3 Aug 2021
My must-read of 2020: a page-turning biography of Keynes
Investment strategy

My must-read of 2020: a page-turning biography of Keynes

John Stepek recommends some of his favourite financial books for you to read as lockdowns continue, including a surprisingly gripping biography of the…
31 Dec 2020
Five books to put on your Christmas list
Investment strategy

Five books to put on your Christmas list

Even if they’ve done nothing else, lockdowns – in whatever guise – have given us plenty of time to read. Merryn Somerset Webb picks five books to enjo…
7 Dec 2020

Most Popular

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest
Small cap stocks

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest

We are living in strange times. But the basics of investing remain the same: buy fairly-priced stocks that can provide an income. And there are few be…
13 Sep 2021
Two shipping funds to buy for steady income
Investment trusts

Two shipping funds to buy for steady income

Returns from owning ships are volatile, but these two investment trusts are trying to make the sector less risky.
7 Sep 2021
How to stop recurring subscriptions becoming a drain on your money
Personal finance

How to stop recurring subscriptions becoming a drain on your money

Tracking and pruning subscriptions isn’t as easy as it sounds. Here's how to take charge.
14 Sep 2021