The Visit at the National Theatre: Beckettian undertones, flavours of Greek tragedy, but no real pietas
“Knowing the theme of the play, I admit I did not expect to laugh as much as I did.”
Originally written in 1956 by Swiss dramaturg Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Visit lands at The National Theatre in a new adaptation by Tony Kushner. Kushner transports the play to 1950s America, choosing the bankrupt town of Slurry for its new setting. The contrast between the destitute industrial city and the newly flourishing economy of post-war America exacerbates one of the key themes of the play: the tempting power money can hold over people. The desire for new things and the attraction for the latest commodities are tangible when the people of Slurry are presented with the possibility of receiving a vast sum of money in exchange for human life.
For a 3-and-a-half-hour play, the plot is rather simple. The Visit is a tragicomic tale of revenge. Claire Zachanassian (Lesley Manville), the wealthiest woman on earth, returns to her hometown, welcomed by an ecstatic community eager to put its hands on some of her riches. The unemployed citizens of Slurry, desperate for money and employment of any kind, don’t have long to wait as Claire offers them one billion dollars under one condition: Alfred Ill, her teenage sweetheart, has to be killed by one of them. One billion to set things right, one billion to buy justice.
While it falls rather flat when it tries to take off on philosophical and moralistic reflections, the play can undoubtedly still be considered a masterpiece quite unique in its kind. Knowing the theme of the play, I admit I did not expect to laugh as much as I did. The citizens of Slurry, simple people struggling with bigger-than-life questions, contribute to much of the play’s comedic effect, while some surrealist components fit perfectly well with its bittersweet character. Of particularly great effect are four women dressed in black, muses and Fate, parading on stage with an empty coffin; Bobby the butler, who seems the reincarnation of Samuel Beckett, a blind and bound couple adding even more Beckettian undertones.
Lesley Manville excels as the richest woman in the world, exquisitely conveying Claire Zachanassian’s perturbed and complex character. She appears as a stone-cold bionic goddess whose thirst for revenge and tendency to buy people and things alike are in a constant fight with past memories and regrets, and with a love which cannot be erased. She is what remains of her past experiences, a ghost of times passed striving to become a myth.
While overall impressive, the staging by Vicky Mortimer does not always manage to fill the space. If the choral scenes work perfectly well, some dialogues are so intimate that the grandeur of The Olivier’s stage becomes a hindrance rather than an asset.
The Visit touches on themes of great importance, reflecting on sacrifice, reward, pity, love, the commodification of death and the causes which might kill a person physically and spiritually. Yet all the pathos which gives the play the flavour of a Greek tragedy never reaches a real moment of climax. Or if it does, it somehow fails to move the audience to real pietas.
The Visit will be on at the National Theatre until 13th May
Photo credit: Johan Persson