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.

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