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FringeReview UK 2020

Low Down

Adapted by Tony Kushner. Directed by James Herrin, designed by Vicki Mortimer and lit by Paul Constable, Costume Design by Moritz Junge and Movement Director Aletta Collins. Composer is Paul Englishby, with Music Director and pianist Malcolm Edmonstone, instrumentalists Shane Forbes, Nick Moss, Jo Nichols, Becca Toft, and Choir Leader Clare Wheeler, with Sound Design Paul Arditti. Company Voice work’s Jeanette Nelson and Victoria Woodward, Dialect Coaches Daniele Lydon and William Conacher. Till May 13th.


First impressions on finding Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Dürrenmatt’s The Visit ran to four hours in previews was to rechristen it The Visitation and wonder if there were angels, but not as we knew them. Though it now runs a little over three-and-a-half hours, it suggested indulgence from the dramatist of Angels in America.

In fact Kushner renews The Visit like an acetylene burst from the rust belt. It’s not only faithful, if dilating each scene (sometimes too much) but brilliantly translates to the America of 1956, the same date as the original. And suggests then as now, that justice and rust-belt towns can be bought, chillingly, by people like Trump.

Anyone who saw Lynn Nottage’s magnificent Sweat at the Donmar – which deals with such a town in 2015, before the 2016 watershed – will recognize Slurry, Kushner’s aptly-christened town somewhere near Buffalo, New York near Lake Erie. Dürrenmatt’s premise – an enforced running-down of a township – fits post-war U.S.A even more convincingly than Switzerland. Kushner takes advantage too of retaining many Germanic character names.

Add to that sovereign acting and Vicki Mortimer’s stupendous set, and the first act in particular rips by. Whether on a steam-blasted rail platform with a chorus of out-of-work men, or on the drum revolve where a forlorn denuded shop gives way to offices, a set of pollarded trees or a final bare stage for the trial and voting scene, and this use of the Olivier is one of the most comprehensive of recent years, lit with a fathoming reach by Paul Constable, especially through nimbi of smoke. It’s how the visitor apparates and vanishes too.

Above there’s gantries where Lesley Manville’s adamantine Old Lady often presides like the captain of industry she is, or an ocean liner – attended by maids and Vivienne Westwood-inspired women undertakers, magenta-edged and fluttering taffeta: costume design by Moritz Junge plays thrillingly with the wealth-clash. There’s even a yellow Cadillac convertible for the family Ill, and a rich passage between the drab steel/rust opening and technicolour avatars of credit visited on the townfolk.

Dürrenmatt’s plot is simple. Manville’s Claire Zachanassian returns in 1956 to the town she left in 1910, heavily pregnant, penniless, abandoned by her lover, Hugo Weaving’s Alfred Ill, who got witnesses to testify to a judge she was promiscuous, he wasn’t the father. Now the richest woman in the world she’s come – with both original judge and witnesses – to offer the town a billion dollars; at a price: the life of Ill, now married to a once-wealthy younger woman, parents to two teenage children. ‘I can wait’ she intones at the end of Act One, when the assembled townfolk initially shrink in horror. The crumbling of that resolve, Ill’s own acceptance of his fate, the complexities of revenge, bared hate and buried love, ripple over the next two acts.

Manville, flicking her entourage like flies – a seventh and eighth husband are toyed with, then dismissed – dominates even offstage. Her Zachanassian is doll-like, contained, held in rather than baring her own teeth. And what’s organically Zachanassian’s? Her trick of detaching a marble-smooth hand: ‘I got out, my hand didn’t’ dismissing an air-crash, intentionally discomfits Ill who’s just kissed it. So a Russian doll.

This finds echoes when the seventh now ex-husband makes off with an artificial silver leg out of pique. Joshua Lacey etches both the Antonioni and sub-Ionesco caricatures of Seven and Eight as well as the finger-cracking Gymnast from an all-tumbling welcome committee at the start. Who might yet have a role.

Manville presides with the habit of 45 years rather than the simple scorn of revenge. Her regality’s more Greek than German tragedy, both of which Dürrenmatt cites as influence. Manville glides her Zachanassian on a psychic chessboard as she orders her pieces and knocks them off the board. Beckettian elements are played up – Godot premiered in French in 1953 – and bowler-hatted false witnesses – Paul Gladwin’s Loby, Simon Startin’s Koby – are led on by odd-job enforcers: guitarist Roby (Troy Alexander) and Louis Martin’s Doby. Loby and Koby look like humiliated Pozzos – ‘You castrated us/You blinded us’ they intone like a broken vaudeville act, grinning. Now they chill with truth to Judge Boby’s Richard Durden, bought back from the Supreme Court. The pawn-like anaphora of names deleted carries its own wailed refrain.

That crumbling starts with Mayor Herckheimer, in Nicholas Woodison’s superbly querulous venality. Publicly defiant at the blood money he soon criticizes Ill’s actions – and disowns the man about to succeed him. Woodison takes hand-wringing complicity to a high art.

Herckheimer’s counterpointed by the more brazen Chief Mundzuk (Jason Barnett) openly bought by Zachanassian and Ill has only his nonchalantly cute son Percy (Michael Elcock) to depend on.

Such law as there is lies in another stand-out performance, Sarah Kestelman’s Principal Henrietta Covington. Kestelman’s moral authority gets equally convoluted but her Covington fights with herself – and everyone else – till the last. You feel if she’s defeated, all is lost, majority vote or no in that last TV scene embellished by Kushner, though not with batteries of TVs. Dürrenmatt shows the other two pillars of civilisation more friable: Garrick Hagon’s faux-deliberating Dr Nutting, also at both trials, and Jospeh Mydell’s hand-wringing Rev. Messing.

Ill’s own family are reduced to horror then numbness, and suddenly as the whole town starts to draw credit, even the Ills’ store mysteriously transforms to a hideous baby-blue with blood-red signwriting. In just two days. Ill’s egregious friend Ian Drysdale’s Mr Hofbauer starts the rot by just calling for tick like reverse protection money. Charlotte Asprey (who’ll undertake the title role in the U.S. tour) visibly shrinks to a forlorn farewell as she waves off Alfred in the forest from the back of the Cadillac, enjoining him to wrap up but not kissing him goodbye. As if surrendering him to a prior claim. Stuart Nunn’s Zachary lights a defiant spark for his pa, but Bethan Cullinane’s Annalise already inhabits a bitter pragmatism.

There’s strong work too from the first-scene ensemble who return like an occasional Greek chorus: Sam Cox’s ‘the buuzzards are circling’ smelter Dan, Paul Dodds as a straight-talking Chief Engineer (he’ll be the U.S. Ill), Simon Markey in three roles including Conductor as voice-of-fate, Kevin Mathurin’s wiseacre Bill in that choric first scene drawing the visitor’s history, with Douglas Walker’s antiphonal Bedney, and Tony Turner’s Wallace with the key recognition: ‘This town was once a destination… now it’s a by-water.’

Alex Mugnaioni’s main role as artist Belsha is one of those bathos-type-laments: ‘I studied with Glackens of the Ashcan School’ (the Ashcan School was 1910s-20s, Kushner’s sending up Belsha rotten, and the railway set’s naturally pure Ashcan). Belsha paints the welcome sign, but gets a more glamorous commission.

Elsewhere Mona Goodwin’s exhausted Shopgirl and wealthier Diana Cowie, Mayor’s venal wife Liz Izen, and Flo Wilson’s Mrs Blatter and Mrs Balk provide a counter-chorus.

Movement Director Aletta Collins takes on huge arcs and deploys sudden straight-aheads by Ill as if out of step. Composer Paul Englishby’s memorable score moves from chamber with Music Director/pianist Malcolm Edmonstone, fining down to guitar or a fantastically tone-flattened choir, with choir leader Clare Wheeler. Sound Design Paul Arditti includes splittering clanks and hisses with a soundworld that bites.

The focus though is on Manville and Weaving throughout. Whereas Manville’s inscrutably skittish and funny, teasing and terrible, her very role is a sibyl’s who’s also got her hands dirty with porcelain gloves. There’s a hieratic vertical sense as if Manville’s descended, as indeed she has. Weaving wheels a satellite around her, often on one knee. There’s a mesmerising kiss after she’s related what she’ll do with him.

Elsewhere Weaving stands at a hunted angle to the whole town; rumpled when the world turns smooth and purring, like the panther Ill was once called by Zachanassian, like the one roaring caged in her entourage. Stencilling a hollow of himself where others fill with greed, Weaving conveys Ill’s entrapment even as he tries boarding a train to escape. Is he complicit, worn down, or trapped in the vortex of his old love?

This seems a hint of Dürrenmatt’s Kushner takes up, to leave Weaver’s emphatically matte agon in the Old Lady’s basilisk stare. And Kushner suggests, if not averted in 2020 the return of the old man too, wreaking far more havoc than on one town.

Herrin’s pace seems kin with that super-naturalist U.S. school of Annie Baker, Richard Nelson, Amy Schwend and Nottage. If you’re not used to it (three of Baker’s plays came to the National, for instance), it’s worth adjusting to, but you’ll be forgiven for wanting an originally tauter, lighter play speeded-up further, and it should be. This production’s rewards though are huge. In an exemplary cast Manville and Kestelman are outstanding: they should haunt you.

If The Physicists from 1962 is Dürrenmatt’s most brilliant, comic and chilling play, The Visit’s universal themes of collaboration and venality stay contemporary forever. Despite some longeurs Kushner’s just renewed that and brought The Visit home with him.