Review: The Visit

The Arts

Olivier, National Theatre, London

‘The Visit, or The Old Lady Comes To Call’ has the feeling of a timeless fable that has always existed. That’s why Swiss-German playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play gets revised and globally performed – adaptors have seen in it a vehicle for different messages.

Songwriters Kander & Ebb had the audacity to create a musical version that unsurprisingly flopped, the parallels to anti-Semitism and fascism having been made even more explicit. But it remains a difficult piece, morbid, cruel, satirical and surreal. A comedy, Dürrenmatt insisted, or at least a tragicomic one – but it’s hard to see the comedy in it now. Especially now.

Tony Kushner, author of ‘Angels in America’, has relocated the action from a run-down Swiss town to the American rustbelt in the 1950s. Here the townspeople of Slurry, bankrupt and desperate since the smelting plant went out of business and jobs dried up, wait at the station for the return of the town’s most famous former resident, Clairie Zachanassian, who left as a teenager and became the world’s richest woman. The first question is not how she became rich but what drove her to leave.

When she emerges through billows of steam, accompanied by a sinister retinue of leather-jacketed thugs, blind twins, silent servants, her seventh husband, a sedan chair and a caged panther, it’s clear she hasn’t returned to recapture happy memories. Nothing could be further from the truth. The townspeople are deeply in debt and need her largesse, but she wants revenge. The form that very specific vengeance takes presents us with a  moral dilemma that has been much discussed ever since.

Clairie Zachanassian is a human wreck. She moves on metal limbs, her body ravaged by the scars of a hard life. She was cast out from the town and her bitterly gained knowledge is that money corrupts even the most morally strong people. Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that distinguishes right from wrong according to outcomes, with the most ethical choice being one that benefits the most. But to enjoy Madame Zachanassian’s beneficence the decent townsfolk must do the unthinkable. Their benefactress knows what human nature will dictate, and the outcome will be as she always foresaw – which is why she arrived in town with pallbearers and a coffin.

Big themes, then; debt and crisis, the failure of ideals, decent people turned to the bad, the flexibility of morals when faced with desperate times. It’s often a thrilling production, utilising all the tricks of the National, a cast of around 30 led by Lesley Manville and Hugo Weaving, plus a choir and child acrobats. 

The play could easily reach mythic status if it had some trims. The absurdist drama is overlong for the current London style of event plays, running at 3 hours 40 minutes last night, with too many densely written late speeches slowing the pace – one is actually repeated. Kushner has a tendency to grandstand with over-explanatory oratory – why spell everything out? At one point some TV presenters laboriously recap everything that’s happened, as if for the benefit of audience members who missed the first or second acts – but Lesley Manville is utterly riveting, and even though she rarely lets us see the frightened girl beneath the rich harridan she sets the play on fire.

‘The Visit’ is something to argue over long after the ending, and grotesquely pertinent to our times, but you have to be patient with Kushner’s version to reap the rewards.

A fun game on the way home was to come up with alternative endings. Here’s ours (spoiler-ish alert): Zachanassian allows the townspeople to vote as she knows they will but leaves without giving them anything, having proven her point about the natural order.

4 comments on “Review: The Visit”

  1. Roger says:

    Djibril Diop Mambéty’s film Hyènes moves the play to Senegal and it is so good I can’t imagine another version being as effective.

  2. snowy says:

    3 hours 40? [Oy Vey!] You could have watched 2 good plays in that time!

    Again the problem with translating Mitteleuropean comedy into any other setting, it doesn’t really work, [See discussion re. Kafka.]

    Having read a synopsis the structure seems all wrong, [not going to type out all the things that are wrong; take ages – take the plot of ‘The Visit’ and re-cut the scenes to match the structure of ‘The Pied Piper’, you will get a rough idea of what I think it should be.]

    [I’m sure Roger’s recommendation is spot on, but if it proves elusive; there exists a [Palme d’Or nominated] film version made in the Sixties.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    Dürrenmatt wrote some great detective novels, one called ‘The Pledge’ was made into a movie with Jack Nicholson but, as ever, the book was better.

  4. Peter, The Hague says:

    I saw it once in Paris at the Theatre Palais Royal with the wonderful Line Renaud (singer, actress, AIDS activist) as “La Visite de la Vieille Dame”.

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