Though we aren’t given the choice that may be implied by the inclusion of the subtitle in The Visit or The Old Lady Who Comes to Call, it is a play that uses juxtaposition as it exaggerates two opposing socio-political standings to highlight the pitfalls of capitalism that are common. In this adaptation by Tony Kushner, directed by Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin, there may also be two very different productions, depending on your viewpoint.
Manville is enough for the three stars – meaning worth the ticket price.
On the one hand, Lesley Manville as the Old Lady, the richest woman in the world, Claire Zachanassian, give a stage commanding five-star performance that belongs in a five-star show. It firmly places the actress in the company of the Smiths and Denches as one of our Dames of Theatre. And Vicki Mortimer’s design is a lavish spectacle of forests, hotels and onstage car driving that – for the first time since her 2017 design of Follies – provides the sort of quality wrapping befitting a special, and not inexpensive, night out at the theatre.
On the other, it’s overblown and overlong, almost 4 hours made up of unnecessary Greek classic allusion and meandering repetition. It’s lazily carried by a disengaged cast of almost 100, many of whom appear to have been cast as an appreciation of office performance rather than of talent.
Unfortunately, like when a good friend marries an oafish thug, to enjoy the company of one, requires you to suffer the tedium of the other. And shows it’s perfectly possible to depict shit, well.
Shit is relevant here as the black and white of the metaphor is writ large enough for any six-year-old. The town visited was originally called Gullen (from the German ‘Gulle’, or ‘liquid manure’) which Kushner has Americanised to ‘Slurry’. (Too) much of the first of the three acts is filled by townsfolk-of-generic-job-title bemoaning the closing of its factories and its abandonment by post-war America. There’s even a Receiver bumbling along to remove such trinkets as the old church bell to recover debts. It is as bankrupt of hope as it is money.
The Old Lady is the countenance to this and is their last desperate hope for salvation. No-one other than her childhood boyfriend-cum-fuck-buddy, ‘Ill’’ remembers much about ‘Clairey’, the 16-year-old girl she was when she left Slurry to seek her fortune, so the pressure lies with him to get her to open her purse. Again. Conversely they all know of Mrs Zachanassian, as much for her philanthropy and charitable acts as she is for her fortune. They need her to save their fortune. But what is the real price they will pay for money.
Wealth is treated with the surreal camp of an 80s Bond villain’s world domination plans, as the offered amount of “1 billion dollars” – small change to her – can’t help has all the assignations of power and world domination. It’s tonally akin to pantomime, stylistically more high opera than high emotion, with its exaggeration that paints her as the symbolic Hagoromo to the town’s out-of-date Dairylea (…I'll wait.)
The dramatic crux centres around the reason for her visit and illustrates how the emotional memory can overrule the experience. It transpires that her ‘leaving’ was more a case of being evicted, abandoned and denied by her lover and forced to carve out an existence for her and the unborn child she carried. The ‘fortune’ she has is a result of the death of the Nazi-sympathizing old man who bought her out of prostitution into his ownership of marriage.
When she reveals there is a condition that comes with half a billion for the town and half a billion to be shared, it is no shock. That the condition is the dead body of Ill to lay off the demon she has carried for forty years, is cute. And makes for the 'will they do it and if so, who will do it' shenanigans of Acts 2 and 3 as true colours are shown, credit accounts are spent, until the inevitable conclusion is reached.
There are no spoilers here as the arc is spelled out as clear as though as a map were included in the programme. The lightness, the inevitability, make it impossible to feel invested in the journey or the outcome. So, it just becomes tiring to watch. Again and again… various non-specifics go back and forth to absolve themselves of responsibility again… to weigh up the pros and cons of choice… again. And then some more. There are at least 45 minutes of procrastination that could be cut without impact. Perhaps Kushner can't decide which 45 minutes.
The choice of Kushner as adapter wasn't made from a desire for brevity, and his penchant for poetic soliloquy wins over a directness of point. Oh, Tony, Tony, Tony, please know when to put the pen down. We know you're smart. We've seen Angels in America. We know you are a fan of the Greek classics. Like we said… we’ve seen Angels. But there are other ways to characterise say, a Schoolteacher, than by choking her with names of Olympians and Titanides.
The lolloping 100 cast – that include a choir, numerous supernumeraries, and a child gymnast troupe (I shit you not) – add to the diverting visual spectacle but seem to be still enthralled by it, as they meander on, speak when the script demands, and meander off again. Even the headliner of Hugo Weaving as the child lover/abandoner/price for financial redemption, Ill, seems as non-committal to his performance as he is to his fate.
Manville’s performance stands out even further against this backdrop. It would be easy to vamp up the old lady as a cartoonish Cruella de Vil type. As portrayed by a drag queen. It would work perfectly well, and when she first appears through plumes of (train) smoke, issuing out cutting comments and commands, you wouldn't be surprised to hear the swells of With One Look.
But there’s an enthralling reality to her. Even as she re-enacts memories of sexual positions, literally, meowing and biting the air, her presence commands every inch of the vast stage, even more significantly than the scale of Mortimer's design. She gives glimpses of the damage done to her, but not to elicit sympathy and never through mawkish 'reveals'.
Some may see the staging as at times distractive, but Manville is enough for the three stars – meaning worth the ticket price. She is so powerful that I would (almost) see it again just to watch her performance. Admittedly it may annoy others as I used the time she isn't on stage to catch up on paperwork. The real tragedy here is that the show's overall rating isn't reflective of this, meaning many may miss out and such a career-best performance may be unfairly forgotten.