Theatre / The Visit Chichester Festival Theatre

'Bacall gives the impression, at times, of having turned into her own Tussaud waxwork. The performance is under-energised'
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The Independent Culture
"Everything can be bought," claims the vengeful multi-millionairess in Durrenmatt's The Visit. One thing that can't, Lauren Bacall's performance at Chichester firmly suggests, is the ability to bring life to a stage. The glamorous screen legend is, in many respects, custom built for the role she plays in Terry Hands's production. Now a steely and vastly rich international VIP, Claire Zachanassian descends on her poverty-stricken native town and calmly offers it a boom and a billion in return for the body of the man who, when she was 17, seduced, impregnated and betrayed her, with the result that she and her baby were drummed out of town.

Bacall possesses an imperious, heavy-lidded stare which could reduce Jeeves to jelly, and cat-family lips that were certainly not moulded to murmur Portia's "quality of mercy" speech. The part gives her the chance to pose with a cigar on a balcony and smile with proprietorial condescension at husbands eight, nine and 10 (all played, very amusingly, by John Hodgkinson). She also gets the opportunity to be carted round in a Louis Quinze sedan chair by her pair of pet criminal heavies, though where the stage directions suggest "a face as impassive as that of an ancient idol", Bacall gives the impression, at times, of having turned into her own Tussaud waxwork.

Never less than competent, the performance is under-energised and lacking in strangeness and charge. In the celebrated Complicite production, Kathryn Hunter was mesmeric and highly middle-European, playing Claire as a corporeal first cousin of Antony Sher's scuttling, spider-on-crutches Richard III. You felt, from the intensity she radiated, that she could have devoured the whole town. The darkly fantastical side of this anti-heroine gets short shrift here, although when Bacall refers to the various false limbs Claire has had fitted as a result of being the creepy sole survivor of various disasters, the claim is so palpably false that the comic unnaturalness of the alleged assemblage makes no impact at all.

With the town looking at first like some beleaguered, rusting scrapyard, the production conveys well the black humour of the inhabitants' steady slippage into an avid consumerism that spells inevitable death for Alfred Ill, Joss Ackland's shopkeeper who, in another life, was Claire's lover and downfall. Though he seems a bit too patrician, vocally, for the part, Ackland transmits a very affecting sense of the tragic humanity this character discovers in himself during the ordeal. As all the townsfolk busy themselves turning a blind eye to their own uneasy consciences, Ackland shows you a man who has belatedly learnt to contemplate without illusion the state of his own soul.

Two things puzzle me. Because he believes his actions turned Claire into the monster she has become (and hence exposed the town to this awful moral test), Ill eventually feels he must allow fate to take its course without protest. But if he's concerned for the spiritual well-being of the community, why not commit suicide, as the mayor asks, and absolve them of the need to stoop to murder? Secondly, given that Claire had taken the precaution of totally bankrupting the town before she swooped in with her proposal, doesn't this mean that Durrenmatt's parable is rigged and that not even his heroine is absolutely confident about the irresistibility of greed?

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