What a memorable visit!
The dramatic opening scene of men waiting at the backwater town of Slurry’s station, the sounds of fast-passing trains, billowing steam, a clock and the wait have a touch of the 1952 film High Noon. Here, the frenzied expectation is for the richest woman in the world, to donate some money, she was, after all, born and bred in that town, until her departure 45 years earlier. She is Claire Zachanassian. Her first love, Alfred Ill, the future mayor of the town, is among those to welcome and shmooze her to part with some of her money to help bring the town back on its feet.
The play, by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, adapted by Tony Kushner, is long, yet gripping. Kushner stays in period, namely the 1950s but changes the location. The unfolding drama is transferred from the fictional town, Güllen (literally “liquid excrement” ) in Switzerland to Slurry, another made-up town in north-west New York state, a locality where poverty gnaws into the daily life of its inhabitants. I doubt if the change of location impacts on the unfolding narrative. It is a universal theme of greed and the price tag society is prepared to put on life. (Considering the Swiss government’s record during War World II, permitting ‘death trains’ through their country without a second blink, as long as the German paid, Switzerland may have been a befitting location).
The visiting old lady offers the town one billion dollars in return for the life of her ex-sweetheart. This struck the townsfolk as preposterous, but one billion dollars is as alluring to the poor as it is to the very rich.
Claire is a survivor. Physical injuries left her with some artificial limbs. She copes with these injuries, but one injury goes as far back as her teens when she experienced a crushing betrayal by Alfred Ill, the love of her life and the father of their baby daughter, the man now assigned to flatter her to secure money for the town.
Lesley Manville elegantly and astutely personified Claire. Her soft voice commands effortless conviction, with wit and raw frankness, punctuated with utter confidence in achieving her goal. Manville’s Claire can be outwardly feminine and tender and a spark of her youthful passion momentarily ignites when they meet in the woods. If one does not know the ending, one would be duped to believe that she changed her mind.
Hugo Weaving’s Alfred Ill, is dashing enough to believe Claire’s infatuation with him. Weaving masterfully projects a character with limited interest and talent, whose deplorable action of 45 years back is embedded in fear of responsibility (paternity) and a desire to better himself through marriage. His Alfred Ill is a man who looks to basic comforts with no challenges. Macabre humour is elicited through the performance of Richard Durden and Paul Gladwin as the blind eunuchs, Boby and Loby. The Choir, the music and lighting, all contribute to sustain the dramatic tension in the unfolding narrative despite the lengthy performance of over three hours.
Vicki Mortimer the set designer, successfully creates the scenes in which the bizarre drama unfolds. The large rotating stage transforms locations, all of which are stark, apart from the final scene when bright lights announce locations of public amenities and a sense of trickling-down wealth. The brutality of the new reality created by Claire’s proposal is poignantly mirrored in a cage-like iron grid balcony, suspended from a high point, with Clair overlooking centre stage. It seemed bizarre accommodation for the billionairess. She seems as if she is confined in an iron ‘cage’ observing Slurry’s inhabitants as they gradually justify and accept her preposterous terms. They are actually the trapped individuals and we the audience, just like Claire can watch their behaviour, as if under a microscope.
Jeremy Herrin’s direction sustains the dramatic tension, particularly in Acts 2 and 3. There is room for further editing and shortening the length of the play without diminishing the thrust of the otherwise excellent production.
- Based on a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt Adapted by Tony Kushner
- Director: Jeremy Herrin
- Music Director: Malcolm Edmonstone
- Costume Designer: Moritz Junge
- Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
- Lesley Manville, Hugo Weaving, Sara Kestelman, Nicholas Woodeson (and many more).
- Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre
- Until 13th of May 2020