A Caller Calls

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, adapted by Tony Kushner, The Visit, or the Old Lady Comes to Call (directed by Jeremy Herrin, National Theatre, London)

Slurry is a mixture of solids suspended in a liquid, but I guess we tend to think of manure. It’s also the name of a town in New York State which by 1955 is almost bankrupt. The trains rarely stop there, the factories have all closed and the bailiffs are circling.

But there is hope, in the shape of Claire Zachanassian, billionaire widow and daughter of the town, who might be persuaded to bail them out. She arrives, with seventh husband, butler, a peculiar double act (Boby and Doby) and two ex-con bearers/bodyguards. She will indeed give them the money, with one string attached – someone must kill Alfred Ill, her slightly older lover from 1910.

All of this is established in the First Act, and it feels as if this would be the climax but is only a third of the way through. I’m assuming this is Kushner being faithful to his source — a 1956 play, much adapted in the past, set in the fictional Swiss town of Güllen (or manure) — but he’s clearly in love with the three-act play and the almost four hour running time. Realistic dialogue all too often gives way to soliloquy, and lengthy at that. The Methodist priest intones Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians at great length, giving us the glass darkly for not the first time in the play. The mayor knows he is a windbag, which is more than can be said for the schoolmistress. And Claire wants her position to be heard. At length.

Of course, it’s set up so that she has the right of justice, but the eye-for-an-eye methods seem to be punishing the guilty and the innocent. Clearly a psychological mess – because of what was done to her – she could easily just have Alfred killed or damaged. She has already had Boby and Doby blinded and castrated. Kushner – or Dürrenmatt’s – models are Sophocles as much as Jacobean revenge tragedy. For all the speechifying, I’m not sure the moral dilemma is quite explored enough.

The actors do well with the superfluity of materials. Nicholas Woodeson, veteran of many a classic serial cameo, steals his scenes as the mayor.

Lesley Manneville, more often seen in Mike Leigh films, brings an unexpected charisma to her performance, literally in a spotlight on her arrival. Apparently, Lauren Bacall played the role in an earlier version and you see why you’d go there. She is evil and funny in equal measure, broken from the vulnerable girl she had been fifty years before the events we see. She would clearly be a perfect White Queen for Narnia. She fills the stage when it is her scenes, and for long stretches stands like an avenging angel on a catwalk aloft between them.

Hugo Weaving shines a little less – too often we are told of his anguish rather than seeing it and his failure to leave town never quite convinces. He has neither the presence of Agent Smith (who Coby and Doby oddly resemble) nor the weight of Elrond. By the time of the play he has built a new life, seemingly having put the events of 1910 well behind him. We never quite hate him and the horror of his plight is never quite brought home. He is perhaps a study in the banality of evil – but we are told he is evil rather than being shown it.

The cavernous space of the Olivier is filled with a cast of thirty or forty – it is clearly epic rather than chamberwork – and the rotating trap allows sets to rise and fall, whilst neon signs are lowered in. A station platform is pushed into and out of action. A metal gantry takes action to eye level for the back of the circle. But the transforms take time and something more Brechtian might have worked better, albeit reduced the ambition.

The text that swims into view is a masterpiece of economy compare to Kushner’s vision – Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948), complete with a small town who collaborate in an act of evil. That also has an exploration of the ethics of capital punishment and questions law and morality. Meanwhile, the consumer utopia anticipates and echoes Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (1973).

Kushner is a highly intelligent playwright, able to move us and clearly ambitious and poetic. But as with Angels in America, more becomes less and he should perhaps reach for the blue pencil. I suspect he won’t though. This isn’t a bad play, by any means. But Manville’s barnstorming is a little isolated in something a little slower.

One Comment

  1. […] visible — the audience for Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, or the Old Lady Comes to Call was noticeably thin, but it had had poor reviews, but a three hundred or so theatre was getting on […]

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