Review: The Visit, National Theatre

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s tragicomedy retains the dark humour which warrants it part of that genre in Tony Kushner’s adaptation. In New York, the town of Slurry is a ghost town, left hopeless from the post-war recession. Yet, the arrival of Slurry born Claire Zachanassian, who returns as the richest woman in the world, implies the town’s fortunes may be changing. The promise of a much needed influx of cash sparks a flicker of hope, illuminating a darker sense of desperation which has grave consequences.

Dürrenmatt’s script is given a fresh coat of paint by Kushner. The dark comedy is prevalent throughout the script, used skilfully to develop both character and context. The humour extends to the characterisation, with the residents of Slurry taking on caricature personas. The slapstick, almost pantomime comedy serves to heighten the drama, with the increasingly jovial townsfolk becoming ever more unnerving as the plot delves deeper into the darker depths of this play.

However, there’s a catch- this play is too long. Possibly the longest show I’ve ever sat through, this play runs at nearly four hours and warrants two intervals. I should also point out that the trajectory of this storyline is made known to the audience rather early on, meaning the inevitable ending really does need to speed up. Sat watching, I can’t help but speculate the best scenes to cut, not out of boredom, but because I begin to long for the ending that was promised to me nearly two hours prior. Shortening the play would not cause it to lose anything; on the contrary, I think an increased pace would only serve the climax of the drama better.

However, being stuck in a theatre for four hours seems a lesser burden when you are watching a performance as captivating as Lesley Manville’s Claire Zachanassian. As if by magic, she appears from a cloud of smoke, a fitting entrance for such a beguiling character. Much like her character, Manville owns the whole stage and much like the townsfolk, we the audience are enraptured. 

So too am I drawn to Hugo Weaving as Alfred. Like the audience, Alfred sees through the façade of his neighbours, automatically making us sympathise with him. With the real hero of the story remaining ambiguous, both Weaving and Manville draw on characteristics both heroic and villainous, creating complex, and unique characters. 

The grandeur of the Olivier Theatre is magnified by Vicki Mortimer’s set design. With towering forests appearing from below and scenes suddenly starting in the rafters, the vertical extent of the stage is used in its entirety. The set looms over the actors, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere; the perfect mood for tonight’s performance. 

The Visit is undeniably an epic play; epic displays of acting, but a much too epic running time. However, my overriding memory of tonight’s performance will be of the calibre of the cast’s performance, not of the play’s duration. This piece questions what money can buy you- if you do decide it can buy you a ticket, I’d suggest it buys you a cushion too.

The Visit is playing the National Theatre until 13 May. For more information and tickets, visit the National Theatre website.