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National Theatre London
TONY Kushner has transposed Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1950s classic from a rundown central European town to a bankrupt US backwater on the shores of Lake Eerie and peopled it with Americanised versions of the original.
There, in this post-industrial fable, billionaire Claire Zachanassian returns to her place of birth in order to buy justice for the wrong done to her as a girl.
Expectantly awaited by the poverty-stricken townsfolk, her arrival like some Ancient Greek deity is more akin to a Fury than a Grace.
With all the technical resources of the National and a cast of over 40 the production, running at some three-and-a-half hours, should captivate. But Kushner's embroidering of the characters and themes smacks of self-indulgence.
Durrenmatt's allegorical tale is a grotesque comedy which relies on symbolic strokes of colour and action to carry the plot, but here it is cluttered with detail that drags the spectacle down.
While Kushner's version adds poetry and more humour to the original, it fills out scenes unnecessarily, as at the comic opening. Quickly establishing place and mood, four nondescript interchangeable characters watch trains pass, the sequence is padded out to such an extent that each character is personalised. This works for individual scenes but comes across here as over-elaboration.
Lesley Manville's Zachanassian, with Bette Davis-style delivery and R2-D2 type movement owing to various prosthetic limbs, dominates the stage with her menacingly bizarre entourage. Hugo Weaving's ex-boyfriend and vengeful subject of her return is in the mould of John Wayne — large, resonant and independent, with an air of dignity and pathos.
Jeremy Herrin directs the other town characters, from Nicholas Woodeson's shrewd and pragmatic mayor to Jason Barnett's over-zealous chief of police, as if they were straight out of a Frank Capra film.
Vicki Mortimer's expressionistic set effectively utilises the full scale of the Olivier stage with curved aerial walkways, symbolic pits and rotating townscapes which, along with Paul Constable's atmospheric lighting design, create a strong visual impact.
It's a striking production and a thought-provoking fable of money's corruptive power but it fails to fulfil its potential.
Runs until May 13, box office: nationaltheatre.org.uk
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