One of our most versatile actresses, Lesley Manville, gives one of her best performances in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s satirical tragicomedy of money and morality The Visit (NT’s Olivier auditorium), which playwright Tony Kushner has transported into mid-20th century America. The production is directed by Jeremy Herrin.
Claire Zachanassian, the world’s richest woman, now old and maimed, returns to her impoverished home town of Slurry, New York, where the recession has bitten. The locals hope her arrival signals a change in their fortunes, but they soon realise that prosperity will only come at a terrible price. She will give them a fortune but on one condition–the life of storekeeper Alfred, her former lover, who made her pregnant, then jilted her, ruining her life as a teenager.
This is a grotesquely funny, undeniably elegant, though at 225 minutes way overlong, production which would benefit from being reduced to half that length. Kushner retains the wickedly playful elements of Durrenmatt’s original. His version emphasises the moral vacuum of the consumerist American Dream–a spending spree is unleashed on the unspoken promise of Alf’s demise, but he also takes enjoyable relish in verbal cruelty. “You look like you swallowed a hat box or is that a goitre?”, Claire blithely remarks with knowing impunity to a former acquaintance.
The production boasts luxurious design by Vicki Mortimer and an atmospheric and nifty jazz soundtrack.
But it is Manville’s star power which really lights up this show. She stalks through this stylish, macabre milieu with a beady, stiff-legged swagger, an eye-opening wardrobe and a cloud of white-blonde hair, mislaying artificial legs and husbands. She flicks lit matches in a dry pine forest and travels with a panther, a coffin, and a neutered retinue of other men who have wronged her. Yet Manville lets the pain bubble beneath her cold exterior, signalling irremedial distress about her destroyed emotional life. Indeed from her stunning entrance, arriving on a station platform in an infernal cloud of steam, standing stock-still, leaning on a cane and looking a million dollars, her face all ageless impassivity, we are hooked by her magnetic, flint-sharp performance.
Matrix star Hugo Weaving, making his NT debut here, is no less praiseworthy as Claire’s quarry, weaving a working man’s gruff heft as Alfred, that dissolves as he feels his fate engulf him. The late scene of tenderness between Alfred and Claire, with the two singing together and caressing, is very moving, but is it too late, as the wheels of justice that she has called for have been set in motion?
In all then this visionary revenge play provides a long but definitely rewarding evening in the theatre.
Plays in repertory until May 13.
Box office: 020 7452 3000.Last modified: April 6, 2021