Piqued: The Visit at the National Theatre
Circle C78, £32
7 February 2020
I think The Visit is the first play I’ve fallen asleep in. I’m rather annoyed about it, and mention it here at least in part so you can decide how much of this review you want to pay attention to. But I think it may also be not irrelevant to an evaluation of Tony Kushner’s self-indulgent adaptation, or Jeremy Herrin’s ponderous production – which, admittedly, is still in previews, so may well liven up.
Further to my shame, while I would like to say my main motivation for paying more than I usually would was the opportunity to see a Friedrich Dürrenmatt play, an important writer whose works I’ve never seen and whom I’ve never even read, it was instead the draw of Lesley Manville, who is to my mind the kipper’s slippers. So she is here, and had she stayed on stage for all of Act III I think I would have had a better chance of evading Morpheus’ pawing caress.
Despite my lacklustre performance, the experience has nevertheless given me an urgent spur to go away and read some Dürrenmatt. The Visit is tonally dissimilar from most things I can think of. It sits somewhere between Brecht and Ionescu, but where the comedy is still grotesque it seems somehow removed from the core of the play. The effect is those comic forays perch with something of an unsettling glower, lurking at you malevolently. In this respect it makes me think of Thomas Bernhardt, though the writing is very different in other ways. Call me intrigued.
I’d like to read The Visit divorced from its forced relocation to America in Kushner’s adaptation. I shouldn’t attribute all of my inner groan to Kushner; maybe if this were an American company in an American town it wouldn’t have felt so silly, but watching an almost exclusively British troupe gurn their way through hokey Americana is not a fertile ground. And given the adaptation seems to be a commission from the National I feel Kushner and some other people should have known better.
But my more serious complaint is that I suspect the play’s relocation from 1950s Switzerland to 1950s USA distracts its focus and makes it rather less interesting than it is. The benighted town Slurry has lost its industry and the fast train never stops. Fine. The Arrival of Claire Zachanassian and her promise of a billion dollars releases all the town to buy on credit. Vicki Mortimer’s designs show us that overnight Slurry transforms from grey post-war slump to vibrant 60s beehives. This bothers me. What I think is the play’s abstract concern of the omnipotent power of money over man becomes thus tangled with thinking about the New Deal and the Marshall Plan, about the strength of US manufacturing in this period, about Willy Loman and the other sources of consumerism beyond the availability of credit and how I trust Arthur Miller to write about his time more than I do Kushner in nostalgic retrospect. In short, I don’t really buy this lazy American wrapping and feel it confuses, distorts and clutters – with the effect that final-act just switcheroo couldn’t keep my attention which I really wish it had.
Part of the problem, to be fair, is that I’ve encountered a lot more things about post-war America than I have about post-war Switzerland – like, I imagine, most of my fellow audience members. An American setting must have seemed an easier way in than a Swiss. But if that’s the case, might it not have been interesting to set it somewhere in the UK? Maybe even try relocating it to our contemporary? But then you wouldn’t hire Tony Kushner, and I suppose then you might not get Lesley Manville or Hugo Weaving.
Manville is perfect for the role: cold, dangerous, quixotic, sympathetic, surprising. Weaving’s pretty good too, though his character is less fun and he does make me think The Matrix is a really long time ago. I was not charmed by the rest of the cast but this was because they were all trying to sound American – though I should make an exception for Sara Kestelman as the schoolmaster and her pleasingly resonant voice. The production was blighted by preview errors but on the whole doesn’t do much beyond swinging some big neon signs down from the flies. Maybe the train station worked better from the front row of the stalls, but from where I was the effect was lost.
So there I am, piqued in more ways than one. At least I take away an incentive to read more Dürrenmatt.