Director Jeremy Herrin’s extraordinary take on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play “The Visit” is less of a production and more of a show. A wordy one, to be sure, which is no surprise since it’s an adaptation by Tony Kushner that, including two intermissions, comes in at three-and-a-half hours. It’s never going to be described as fleet-footed, and there are undeniable longueurs, but with a 28-person cast, five musicians, 12 child acrobats, 16 supernumeraries and a 30-person choir, fascinatingly theatrical it most certainly is. And it’s topped off by a chillingly brilliant lead performance from Lesley Manville.
Rather like Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” but with more laughs, the first part of the play consists of the entire cast anxiously awaiting the arrival of the key character, in this case, the fierce and fabulously wealthy Claire Zachanassian (Manville). For the first time since she left as an adolescent 45 years ago, she’s returning to her fast-fading hometown of Slurry — in Kushner’s hands, we’re outside New York — which has not so much fallen on hard times as become bankrupt.
Her only real friend from her past, the family man Alfred Ill (the nicely shambling, but doughty, Hugo Weaving) with whom she once had a secret, passionate affair, has been strong-armed by the mayor (Nicholas Woodeson, amusingly inept, but punchy) into heading the revved-up reception committee planning to greet her upon her arrival at the rickety train station. They’ll serenade, flatter and woo her into, what, filling the town’s coffers? Rebuilding it from the ground up?
In the first in a succession of directorial triumphs from Herrin, his set designer Vicki Mortimer, lighting designer Paule Constable and sound designer Paul Arditti, we hear the screaming brakes and billowing clouds of steam as the (unseen) express train screams to a halt. And there, as the clouds part, is Manville’s Claire.
A dazzling cross between Eva Perón and Elaine Stritch, with a side order of Bette Davis, the glitteringly bitter Manville doesn’t so much walk the cavernous stage of the Olivier Theatre as stalk it. Backed up at every turn by her entourage of flunkies led by an erstwhile judge-turned-butler, plus her pretty-but-vacant seventh husband — not to mention an ominously empty coffin — she is commanding in every sense.
Initially playing her cards close to her lavishly dressed chest (the exquisite costumes are by Moritz Junge), she holds not just the townsfolk in thrall, but the entire audience. Having quizzed everyone about the state of affairs, she declares she will be the town’s savior and donate a billion dollars. But universal rejoicing is stopped in its tracks by her announcement of a single terrifying condition: At the climax of the lengthy first act she demands justice. For her, justice is retribution of the worst possible kind, and she has Alfred in her crosshairs.
From that point onwards, it becomes clear that “The Visit” is more of a fable than a play. An eventful plot is replaced by a premise: How far will people go in pursuit of wealth and prosperity? In the second and third acts, everyone makes the right noises, but they’re simultaneously preparing for what they argue is the best and which we know is the worst. It’s like a reverse spin on “It’s A Wonderful Life,” with the town slowly weighing up Claire’s utterly extreme demand and allowing greed not just to thrive, but, possibly, to win.
Alongside the increasingly vivid dramatization of the implications of her demand, Kushner builds a few too many opportunities for himself to debate the ideas behind it all. As a result, he slows proceedings down with well-written but static disquisitions. Yet Manville gives her character an unimpeachable self-confidence, filling the auditorium with such voice and staring demeanor that audiences are carried along. And speaking of impeachment, is it any wonder that the play set in the ’50s about the lure of money and the selling of a place’s soul resonates so strongly now?
One of the night’s biggest surprises is a song between Manville and Weaving that pops up, seemingly out of nowhere. She drops her fire and frost, he relinquishes his anger and distress, and, in the context of the nightmare surrounding them and engulfing the town, their singing in the atmospheric woodlands of their youth is shockingly tender. This gear change, so late in the dark proceedings, really ought to not work. It’s a hallmark of the production’s winning self-confidence that it so manifestly does.
Herrin’s production expertly balances small-town detail with epic sweep, the division between the two punctuated by woozy ’50s jazz played live by a quintet, highlighted by Miles Davis-like muted trumpet. Mortimer’s multiple sets, suggestive and enhanced with piquant detail, rise up and drop down through the Olivier’s giant central turntable, constantly turning to change locations, while Constable’s lighting swings expertly from the ache of nostalgia to the viciously hard chill of the baldly and boldly staged finale, supposedly “live on TV.”
Beyond the two leads, it’s the very definition of an ensemble production. Sara Kestelman and Joseph Mydell make strong impressions as the elderly schoolteacher with a moral sense and the local minister who sees things similarly, but also rather likes the idea of his church bell being replaced.
It is by no means a flawless evening, but the sheer scale of the production, unimaginable outside of the massively resourced National Theatre, fills gaps in the dramatic writing. Once any desire for an eventful story has been parked, audiences are left to revel in the playing out of a grand idea in a theatrical style rarely seen today.