There’s a fierce relevance in the story of a woman failed by a patriarchal justice system and seeking justice her own way. Relevance also in a play about what ordinary people would do if offered a lot of money – and in a play about an eccentric, unpredictable billionaire.
Add Lesley Manville to the mix, and Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s classic play, directed stylishly by Jeremy Herrin, has the makings of a superb thing. It’s just a shame it’s an hour too long.
We’re in Slurry, New York, a struggling backwater on the shore of Lake Erie, so poor they’ve even had to sell the church bell. Although down, they’re not yet out: they’re awaiting the arrival of the world’s richest woman, Claire Zachanassian, who happened to grow up here. When she arrives, she gladly offers the town a billion dollars – on the condition that they kill her childhood sweetheart, the town’s beloved grocer Alfred Ill.
The town is faded, as are its occupants and the drab clothes they wear. But amid the dreariness, the sassy, icy focal point is Lesley Manville as Claire the billionaire. Manville’s magnificent performance summons every iota of the audience’s attention every moment she’s on stage, her glitz magnified by Paule Constable’s stunningly white light and Moritz Junge’s extravagant costumes, like Cruella de Vil attending the Met Gala. Manville is a Caligulan grotesque, nearing the end of her patience with her seventh husband and demanding to be carried around in a sedan chair.
There’s mischievous comedy in the way the truckling residents fall over themselves to curry favour with Claire, and a gleeful darkness in their credit-account spending spree, disgorging money they don’t have in the certainty that Alfred will die. Alongside the superlative Manville, Hugo Weaving makes Alfred as nice as possible, and he turns his tender scenes – a quick embrace with his son, a last-ditch discussion with Claire in the forest – into the play’s most powerful moments.
Kushner provides some glorious speeches and zinging lines, but the play falls victim to his usual excesses. Every scene outstays its welcome, until even Weaving’s character roars for the others to stop. It also feels muddled as to whether it wants to be reality or thought experiment. Though Kushner tries to squeeze the play into a realistic setting – a declined, post-industrial American town – it never fully convinces. The play works much better in its generalised, surreal moments.
It’s not obvious at first why Herrin and designer Vicki Mortimer let us see the apparatus of the theatre so plainly: the lighting rigs, the speakers, the walkways, even the room where the band play Paul Englishby’s superbly slinky, noirish jazz score. But eventually it becomes clear that, to Claire, this is just a play, and it’s hers to direct, every beat. She has the money and she can make people do whatever she wants.
While its length is a problem, its high points are riveting, Herrin’s production is cool and stylish, and it’s worth the surfeit to see Manville at her resplendent best.