Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 15th February 2020.
I rather like a good epic, I regularly go to Wagner operas after all. But the big test of such an epic is whether the time flies by so that, in fact, you forget how long you're there for. On this occasion, proceedings dragged, badly.
I'm not familiar with Friedrich Durrenmatt's original, but presumably it had a Swiss or European setting. Tony Kushner's new adaptation transplants it to a decaying town in rust-belt America. Commentary on the social effects of the collapse of industry in the rust-belt has been everywhere since Trump's victory in 2016. Kushner's take on the setting sadly has nothing fresh to say. I'd recently read Amy Goldstein's Janesville: An American Story (2017) - which both goes deeper into the impact of economic change in the region and is more dramatically compelling than anything in this show.
The plot can be summed up succinctly (spoilers follow). The fabulously rich Claire Zachanassian (Lesley Manville) returns to the town whose leading figures hope that she will set it back on its feet. She offers to do so in return for justice against her former teenage lover Alfred Ill (Hugo Weaving) who it seems got her pregnant and denied he was the father in court. It takes an hour and twenty minutes for the play to establish this while Kushner rambles through his attempted social commentary and a scattering of jokes which felt forced.
Acts Two and Three (Two is by far the strongest part of the afternoon) then show us the townsfolk, having initially rejected Zachanassian's offer, gradually giving way to temptation. Once again the choice of an American setting is problematic. In the context of what Trump is currently getting away with in the Oval Office, the corruption in Slurry ultimately feels pale by comparison. Problems with both pacing and staging mean there is a rarely any real sense of a building threat against Ill - indeed by the time the denouement eventually arrives I just wanted them to kill him so that I could get out of the theatre.
Director Jeremy Herrin has assembled an enormous cast, but despite this, as so often in the Norris era, the production tends to feel lost in the Olivier space. Vicki Mortimer's set pretty completely fails to create any sense of small town claustrophobia. Often it's overly elaborate making set changes slow while not encompassing enough to make for a convincing world. At other times, perhaps most notably in the final scene, it becomes so open that it's impossible to understand why Weaving doesn't take one of the many available exits and at least temporarily escape - this is of course part of that broader failure to build up the sense of threat. Herrin and Mortimer have also added a gantry above the action linked to the stage by a set of stairs. This is probably the most superfluous piece of set I've seen at the National since the corridor in Rocket to the Moon. A few supernumeraries stand about on it on occasion, and Manville has a couple of scenes above late on, but otherwise it just adds to the feeling of there being too much space and not enough sense of place.
Herrin and movement director Aletta Collins's management of people rarely creates that sense of electric connection between performers that I highly prize. The best scenes are a couple of more intimate ones in a wood between Manville and Weaving - though the wood is sadly unconvincing (and judging by the off-stage noise at one point takes a bit of assembling). Movement again bears some responsibility for the failure to build up the threat to Ill. It's also a mistake to have established the presence of so many weapons through Acts 2 and 3 only to stage the actual killing bloodlessly.
Incidental music has often been a problem at Norris's National, and is so again here. The musicians are placed in a light box stage right (usually in the Olivier small bands are placed in one of the wings high and to the side - a much better approach). We can see them all the time, but it was never clear to me to what end. The score itself by Paul Englishby suffers from a tendency in incidental music at present to be overly emphatic, and contributes to the failure of the staging to really come to life.
The ensemble do their best to lift proceedings. I've previously seen both Lesley Manville and Hugo Weaving give magnificent performances but neither of them succeeded in making me really care here. To my mind Manville doesn't ever quite show us enough of the young girl whose suffering we are evidently meant to believe has driven her to her present bitterness and fury. Joseph Mydell delivers 13 Corinthians beautifully, but Kushner, as elsewhere, lets both it and Manville's eventual response go on too long - indeed it just isn't convincing that Manville's character wouldn't have cut him off earlier. Sara Kestelman's school teacher and Nicholas Woodeson's mayor are the best of the rest of the supporting cast.
This is a long, and too often unengaging three and a half hours at the theatre. Other critics regard Manville's performance as being so good as to make the show worth seeing, but I wasn't convinced. Missable.