What a strange spectacle The Visit is. Tony Kushner’s take on Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1956 tragicomedy is a camp, cartoonish pantomime, a vaudevillian nightmare spread – inexplicably – over three-and-a-half hours.
It is an unforgivable running time – the decision, presumably, of director Jeremy Herrin – though time does fly whenever the magnificent Lesley Manville is on stage. She is Claire Zachanassian, “the richest woman in the goddamn world”, who makes an ostentatious return to her hometown of Slurry, New York.
While she’s been off amassing preposterous wealth, the town and its folk have decayed. As if to hammer home the sense of stagnation, the clocks are broken, the church bell no longer chimes. “We’re alive now only in the sense that moss and lichen are alive,” says one of the old men gathered at the train station, there to greet “Clairie” with a blundering obsequiousness.
Manville arrives in a puff of smoke, having a ball from the off. Part-Marilyn Monroe, part-Cruella de Devil, she hams it up, her every pearl-adorned pose worthy of being hung in a gallery. The contrast between Claire and the rest of the town is stark. Ludicrously so. Having lost most of her limbs in various far-fetched ways – “My left leg’s gone, first to cancer, but then a duelling accident with sailors” – she is now as much metal as flesh, and is carried around by her henchmen in a throne given to her by Pope Pius XII. She travels with her seventh husband (whom she soon divorces and forgets to tell him), a live panther, two disturbingly caricatured blind men bound together for her amusement, and a shiny black coffin. Bafflingly, everyone who works for her has a variation of the same name: Roby, Boby, Loby, Doby, Koby…
The coffin, it turns out, is for her childhood sweetheart Alfred. Played with faded charm by Hugo Weaving, he is now married with teenage children, stuck in a cycle of monotony. “My life’s a bad joke,” he says with an objectionable self-pity. In an unusually affecting revelation, it transpires that Alfred wronged Claire greatly when the pair were teenagers. She announces that she will give the town of Slurry one billion dollars on the condition that somebody murders him.
They refuse – with a great sense of righteousness – but in the days that follow, things grow murkier. People start buying lavish things on credit. The clock is repaired. So is the bell. Alfred grows increasingly paranoid. How are they planning on repaying these debts if not with Claire’s donation? Are the residents going to kill him after all?
There are some intriguing philosophical quandaries at play here. Can money buy you justice? Can moral values be bought off at the right price? Does capitalism and consumerism erode people’s humanity? But almost every opportunity to explore these questions is sacrificed in favour of another bizarre, bulging set-piece. It’s a fact made more maddening by the brief flashes of truly wonderful work – two scenes between Claire and Alfred, set among a forest that rises up from the stage floor, are a masterclass in acting and direction.
But too much, unfortunately, is as hollow as Claire’s aluminium leg.