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

Six of the most interesting books I read in 2021
Books

Six of the most interesting books I read in 2021

John Stepek picks six of his favourite books covering everything from blockchain to stockpicking, and the perils of doing business in Russia.
28 Dec 2021
Five books to make you think this Christmas
Books

Five books to make you think this Christmas

Merryn Somerset Webb picks five books on the theme of ownership for you to read over the festive period.
10 Dec 2021
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

Most Popular

Five unexpected events that could shock the markets in 2022
Stockmarkets

Five unexpected events that could shock the markets in 2022

Forget Covid-19 – it’s the unexpected twists that will rattle markets in 2022, says Matthew Lynn. Here are five possibilities
31 Dec 2021
US inflation is at its highest since 1982. Why aren’t markets panicking?
Inflation

US inflation is at its highest since 1982. Why aren’t markets panicking?

US inflation is at 7% – the last time it was this high interest rates were at 14%. But instead of panicking, markets just shrugged. John Stepek explai…
13 Jan 2022
Tech stocks teeter as US Treasury bond yields rise
Tech stocks

Tech stocks teeter as US Treasury bond yields rise

The realisation that central banks are about to tighten their monetary policies caused a sell-off in the tech-heavy Nasdaq stock index and the biggest…
14 Jan 2022