I love Lesley Manville. I love her so much I once seriously considered buying a dog and naming it after her. I had seen her in Long Day’s Journey into Night and became obsessed with her performance as “a beautiful ghost”. That was specifically the phrase I used to describe her: “a beautiful ghost”, because she floated so ethereally across the stage in a semi-transparent vision of faded/fading loveliness. Then I came across a long-haired sausage dog – one of those ones where its soft, undulating coat falls so close to the ground that you can’t see its feet and when it moves about it looks – yes – like a beautiful ghost. So I thought: I will get one of those dogs and name it Lesley to forever remind me of her scene-stealing performance opposite Jeremy Irons in a Eugene O’Neill revival. Because that, my friends, is how my brain works.
And if you thought that anecdote was tedious, I can promise it’s still far less so than The Visit, or The Old Lady Comes to Call (not least because that paragraph probably took you roughly 2 minutes to read, and The Visit will take you 3 hours 30 minutes to watch). Tony Kushner’s version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play is a meandering, unfocused account of what happens when a billionaire returns to her backwater hometown looking for some kind of revenge for the treatment she received as a pregnant 16-year-old. It sprawls, repeats, rambles and, despite giving itself more than enough time to, develops none of the characters to a satisfying extent.
Jeremy Herrin’s production echoes the unwieldiness of Kushner’s script, opting for quantity and excess over genuine style or insight. The best aspect of the production is Vicki Mortimer’s sooty, post-industrial set design and the rockabilly-gothic costumes, designed by Moritz Junge. Yet even the aesthetic is overstretched and, at points, made redundant by its sheer volume. This production lays claim to having one of the biggest casts of any recent National Theatre production and, by extension, one of the most wasted. There’s an entire ecclesiastical choir who get to sing approximately five lines, an entourage of women in French maid outfits who walk in circles during scene changes and a set of top-hatted pallbearers who, again, follow the main characters around without real purpose.
But the production’s biggest sin is that even Queen Lesley (who puts in a characteristically brilliant performance because, well, when doesn’t she?) is in some respects wasted. The character of Claire Zachanassian seems, on the surface, to be a peach of a role. The “old lady” of the subtitle title (note: the slightly derogatory undertones of the phrasing) is a glamorous anti-hero who presents the entire population of her impoverished birthplace with a morally ambiguous pact: she’ll give them a billion dollars, but only if they deliver her the body of Alfred Ill (Hugo Weaving), the man who wronged her. It’s worth noting here, before we go any further, that Alfred didn’t just get her pregnant at 16 and then break her heart by abandoning her, he also recruited male friends to publicly testify in court that she was a whore and, therefore, that Alfred was not the only candidate for being the father.
Anyway, Claire (or ‘Clairie’ as her hometown chums infantilise her), returns for a visit dripping with money and a ‘gives no fucks’ attitude. Like several aspects of the play, Claire is a caricature or a borderline grotesque. She’s intended as a figure of fear and, by extension, one who holds a certain type of power. But it’s how she’s meant to inspire fear that’s questionable – and more than a little depressing. Claire’s scariness resides in her as an older, over-sexed (no, scratch that – basically just ‘sexualised’) woman with a string of toy boy husbands. Her body, another object of fear, is made monstrous by being at least half artificial, making her a dehumanised and unnatural cyborg figure. Her appetite for revenge is also intended to be terrifying – and, in the way it spreads capitalistic immorality through the town, a polluting force – because she performs the ultimate male fear of demanding the body of a man as her reward and plaything.
In this respect, Claire Zachanassian is a variant of the Salomé myth: a woman who beguiles, murders and outwits the apparently powerful men around her. In even less subtle terms, her revenge against the two men who testified in court is to castrate them [Not today, Sigmund, I’m too tired]. There’s so much here that plays on men’s oldest, most unnuanced fears of femalekind. So much so it’s not even the type of misogyny-with-a-big-M that warrants much attention (as in: I literally have more important things to be getting on with in my day than explaining the subtext). But it is, if nothing else, possibly the most tedious thing of all about The Visit.
The Visit is on at National Theatre until 13th May 2020. More info and tickets here.