Any opportunity to see Lesley Manville on stage should be taken but The Visit or The Old Lady Comes to Call proves close to a trial at the National Theatre
“We’re alive now only in the sense that moss and lichen are alive”
There’s no two ways about it – Tony Kushner’s new version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 The Visit or The Old Lady Comes to Call is a punishing evening on the buttocks. Thank the Lord (or the donors) for the relative comfort of the seating at the National Theatre but unless you’re a fan of Lesley Manville (and what right-thinking individual isn’t), it could well prove punishing on your patience too.
Manville really is superb. She’s Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world who has returned to her dilapidated hometown with an intriguing proposition for the townsfolk. She’ll donate an incredible, life-changing amount of money for everyone if they’ll carry out a brutal act of vengeance on the man whose actions forced her to leave the place as a pregnant teenager. And she rises to the challenge, displaying a mesmerising stage presence that is startling in its power.
But there’s just so much stuff around her, well over three hours of it, and without Manville’s Claire at the heart of the action, you begin to feel closer to every minute of it. Kushner clearly doesn’t believe in the concept of a tight edit and as amusing florid as much of his language gets, in these quantities it’s just too much, it’s anti-consumerist message a sledgehammer trying to keep us awake with every bash.
Jeremy Herrin’s production similarly overeggs the pudding with a whole lotta busy-ness. A cast of 28 is supplemented with choirs, supernumeraries, acrobatic troupes, a cuddly toy… And Vicki Mortimer’s set design does the absolute most, the drum creaking into action to vivid effect, almost convincing you that we’re onto a winner. But it’s never quite clear that this is all actually in aid of something worth it, unless Manville is on the stage. Approach forearmed with caution and you’ll be glad to have seen one of our finest actors doing something spectacular.