Writer: Tony Kushner, based on the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Director: Jeremy Herrin
In the post-war years of the 1950s, the visions of America we received from Hollywood were of burgeoning consumerism, prosperity and consumerism going hand in hand. But alongside such growth were pockets of the US where prosperity was passing them by.
Tony Kushner (writer of Angels in America and Caroline, Or Change) relocates Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play of a woman’s Faustian bargain with her home town to one such pocket of recession: the fictional town of Slurry in upstate New York. Trains that once stopped here have been replaced by express services; the new interstate highway network means that auto travellers have no reason to pass through. The town’s industry has dried up, and the coffers are empty: the town, like its residents, are bankrupt.
Into this community swans Claire Zachanassian, once rejected by the town as a 16-year-old girl, but in the past half century has ascended to become the richest woman on the planet. She has a reputation for munificence, so the townsfolk are eager to please her in the hope of receiving some charity. Central to the town’s charm offensive is Hugo Weaving’s Alfred Ill, Claire’s teenage lover; Nicholas Woodeson’s mayor believes a rekindling of their romance will secure the dowager’s patronage, oblivious to Alfred’s reticence.
Lesley Manville’s first appearance as Claire, emerging from plumes of smoke as she forces the express train to stop in this backwater, emphasises the difference between her current status and the town she once left behind. Manville is charmingly amusing, her entourage both macabre and circus-like.
It is a performance which is both larger than life and restrained. Manville is restrained, often motionless: partly because her character walks on metal prostheses (one leg lost to a car accident, the other to cancer) but also because she has little need to scurry about like the ants she looks down upon.
The impact of the promise of money takes significant turns in each of the three acts in Kushner’s adaptation. At first, the wheedling attempts of the townsfolk to impress Claire are mildly amusing, but offer little to justify the commitment of an audience to sit through the rest of the play’s three and a half hours.
But then Claire makes her offer: the town will receive a billion dollars – half to the town council, the rest split among the residents – but on one condition: that Alfred Ill, the man who when they were teenagers got her pregnant and then denied it in court, forcing her to flee Slurry, is killed.
The reaction to this forms the basis of the play’s second act: while outwardly denying her offer and professing solidarity with Alfred, the prospect of a windfall in the future – should someone other than themselves deliver Claire’s demand – spurs a sudden boom in spending on credit.
The overnight transformation of Slurry is as absurdist as it is satirical; capitalist prosperity built on credit, Kushner posits, is a deal with the devil. But while such broad strokes are enjoyable, it is the psyche of the town, and Alfred in particular, which is the most watchable. As the town continues to deny Alfred is in any danger from them, Weaving becomes increasingly agitated, culminating in a stand-off on the railway platform; if he attempts to leave Slurry, thus forever denying the town their money, will the other residents allow him?
The lure of lucre is palpable. And while one might argue the show’s themes could play out over a shorter running time, Kushner’s script sparkles throughout. Director Jeremy Herrin’s staging, populating the Olivier’s cavernous stage with chunks of Americana designed by Vicki Mortimer, keeps the tension high, forever dangling the prospect of a thaw by Manville’s imperious Claire, or a collective step back from the brink by the populace, to save Weaving’s Alfred.
But it is the two central performances, from Weaving’s cornered animal to Manville’s mischievous, Mephistophelean agitator, which ensures that this play utterly deserves its place on the National stage.
Continues until 13 May 2020.