This week I went to see The Visit or The old lady comes to call at the National Theatre. It’s a long play, with three acts running to three and a half hours but I was drawn in to the story and didn’t really notice the passage of time.
The play is set in Depression era USA. The town of Slurry is dying. The trains don’t stop there anymore, the factories have closed down, and the only place in town that does any business is the soup kitchen.
The only beam of light for the people of Slurry is an expected visit from the richest woman in the world. Slurry-born Claire Muckle, the poor, beaten daughter of the town drunk, is now Claire Zachanassian, widow of a billionaire and famous for her random and extravagant charitable gestures. The town is relying on her visit to revive their fortunes, restore their former glories, and in an attempt to tempt her and secure her financial support, the mayor has enlisted her teenage sweetheart, Albert Ell, to be part of the welcoming committee.
Lesley Manville is hypnotic as Claire, dominating every scene and calling the shots as you would expect a gazillionairess would. Claire’s hard exterior is only matched by her hard interior. She still loves Ell but love is so close to hate. As the play progresses you start to realise why. Hugo Weaving plays Ell, her long-ago teen lover, a man now in his late years beaten down by life, but who lights up when he remembers his trysts with the young Claire. Selectively, it turns out. He starts out looking like a hero and ends up looking like a villain.
Claire rolls into town with an entourage of strange and unusual characters…. and a coffin. Like other rich eccentrics, Claire Zachanassian, has a pet panther, but as the play progresses, it’s revealed she has pet people as well, and during the play, stories from her entourage emerge – often disturbing but clearly demonstrating that money trumps morals.
It turns out that the reason she has come back is not exactly what the townsfolk were hoping for.
I think this is about as much as I can reveal of the plot without giving too much away.
The play raises the question, what would you do for money? And not small money, one billion dollars. Is there anything that money cannot buy?
The morals of the town of Slurry crumble as Claire’s promise of wild riches hangs over the town like a thick soup.
Amongst the large cast, Nicholas Wooderson is suitably unctuous as Slurry’s mayor, and Sara Kestelman seems to be channeling Lauren Bacall as the moral humanist school teacher.
The rotating stage of the Olivier Theatre is put to good use as a town hall, a train station, a hotel, a forest, the Slurry store. At the same time the staging is pared down and sparse, so as not to distract from the plot. A live band plays along, providing jazz tunes for reflective moments and a soundtrack for the trains that pass through town.
The play alternates through pathos and dark humour, with some moments of quiet tenderness. Your opinions of the characters change as the play unfolds, until the final scene when you may find yourself unhappy with which side you are on.