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What do you get if you take an old warhorse of European drama which blends Greek tragedy, high comedy and Theatre of the Absurd, transport it to 1950’s small town America and make it look like a dark Coen Brothers movie but with Bette Davis in the lead. The answer is a hit and the kind of audacious big cast, big set staging which the National Theatre is there for.
Key to its success is a barnstorming central performance by Leslie Manville, channelling Bette Davis in The Little Foxes, with Australian star of stage and screen, Hugo Weaving, providing strong support.
Manville plays Clare Zachanassian, a terrifying society beauty who returns to her hometown as the world’s richest woman, with another dispensable husband (No. 8) in tow, as well as huge macabre entourage. The town, here called Slurry, has been laid low by economic depression and the trains don’t stop at its forlorn station anymore. With the arrival of the old lady the townsfolk see a chance to turn their fortunes around. What they hadn’t expected however was that her return isn’t driven by sentiment and her offer of $1bn for the bankrupt town comes with a terrible price.
She’s avenging a wrong done to her as teenager by jilted lover and he, Alfred Ill (Weaving), is now a local storekeeper. The Mayor (Nicholas Woodeson, as reliably brilliant as ever) rather haughtily refuses her offer and the play is a wonderful exploration of how the high moral high of the townsfolk soon dissolves when confronted with the prospect of easy money. They go on a binge of spending on credit. It’s a moral tale about greed and a society in thrall to billionaires but Kushner injects new life into it. Yes, there are his characteristic big speeches overflowing with ideas and ethical dilemmas but he’s a true poet and it’s the language here that just sings (you’ll want to get the text). There’s the deadpan acerbic wit of Clare (think of every film noir heroine), the empty pomposity of the Mayor beautifully satirised and the mellifluous erudition of Sara Kestelman, who commands the stage in a delicious role as the School Principal. It has no truck with realism and is utterly theatrical.
Director Jeremy Herrin gets the tone and pacing just right. He manages to seamlessly weave vastly disparate styles and themes and even accommodates the more extreme Greek tragedy elements (blinded eunuchs and mangled limbs) and a lead who is carried around on a portable throne. The vast Olivier stage and it’s great revolve are used to great effect in an epic staging which includes a gospel choir and child tumblers.
Transporting it all to rural upstate New York in the 1950s is also ingenious. The Frank Capra gone sour spirit of the townspeople chimes with that gung-ho post war attitude and it all has the air of the Coen Brothers at their most wicked. Vicki Mortimer’s designs and Moritz Junge’s costumes allow us wallow in Americana, even a ship-like Thunderbird convertible. A rich, jazz-infused, score by Paul Englishby, played live, adds yet another perfect layer.