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The Visit

Review - The Visit at the National Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

After three consecutive openings earlier in the week of shows that ran for an hour or less each, the revival of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 1956 queasy portrait of moral revenge The Visit at the National Theatre now runs longer than all three of them put together, clocking in at over three and a half hours, including two intervals. 

But it's a long day's journey into night for diminishing dramatic returns, even as the townsfolk of Slurry, a beleaguered, poverty-stricken industrial town in western New York state (in Tony Kushner's new version of the play), are hoping for rapidly changing financial returns in the shape of a native daughter of the town, Claire Zachanassian, who left it when she was pregnant at the age of 16 and is now returning, 45 years later, as a billionaire heiress. 

However, she's coming back for one thing only: to revenge the lover Alfred III who dumped her back then. And the scheme she's intent on implementing is to offer the townspeople a billion-dollar gift - but only if they murder the man who broke her heart, and is now married to another woman and runs a local goods store. 

All of this is established very early in the play, so there's not much in the way of dramatic development from there on in, or any prevailing tension, as the town comes to terms with their stark choice: save themselves, or save him.  

In this over-long, over-wrought and over-produced production, however, it's stretched out far beyond our ability to care about what happens or to even be surprised by it. 

Instead, we're left watching a grim black comedy, explosively let loose with the full effects of the Olivier stage, including huge sets by Vicki Mortimer that sweep us from the railway station (where she arrives) to the town hall and local shops, and a weird platform high over the stage from where Claire surveys the action. 

While director Jeremy Herrin recently had a deservedly big West End success with another comedy of theatrical extremes Noises Off, this one doesn't come off but just seems to endlessly mimic the desperation of the characters in being desperate itself.

It all feels very forced, extreme, and inauthentic. That even stretches, alas, to Lesley Manville, one of my very favourite actors, who has the right ferocity as the blonde-wigged heiress but seems to be magnifying her despair instead of revealing it. Opposite her, the Australian film and stage actor Hugo Weaving feels rather too subdued, grimly accepting his fate. 

A massive cast of nearly 30 other actors populate the townsfolk in various shades of caricacture, with intermittently amusing contributions from Sara Kestelman as a principled local school teacher and Nicholas Woodeson as the town mayor.

I previously saw the play in a Complicite production that was launched in the UK in 1989 and toured regionally and internationally before coming into the National in 1991 in a version that featured an Olivier Award-winning performance from Kathryn Hunter as Claire Zachanassian that remains indelibly etched in my memory. More recently, I also saw an entirely new Broadway musical adaptation of the story in 2015, with a lush and gorgeous score by Kander and Ebb. While there are times when this production feels like a musical, too, in terms of its scale (and there's one lovely moment when Manville and Weaving serenade each other in song), I wished I was seeing either of those productions again instead.

The Visit is at the National Theatre until 13th May.

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