first night

The Visit

Callum Cheatle pays a visit to the Assembly Rooms for Hill College Theatre Company's latest offering.


“The Visit is a hilarious and horrible play. It is both a tragedy and a comedy, a fairytale drawing on anti-realism and the absurd, a satire, a farce, a simplistic story of caricatures and clowns all the while demanding that the audience take it seriously.”
Director Rob Henderson certainly understood the challenge he faced in directing Durrenmatt’s The Visit, one of the most popular plays in contemporary Western theatre. He brilliantly took up this challenge and in doing so created a fine piece of theatre for the Assembly Rooms stage which effectively explored the main themes of greed, revenge and moral strength in an enjoyable, illuminating fashion.
All theatre requires that directors have ‘a vision’ and make certain choices to reflect this. With ‘The Visit’ this grounding is particularly important so as to avoid, due to Durrenmatt’s style and the huge potential for varying interpretation of the script, an audience being left in disarrayed confusion. By making individual choices Director Rob Henderson successfully executed his clear vision for the play, ensuring an enlivened audience come curtain-call. He cared for the dynamics of each scene precisely and made full use of the space, staging scenes creatively. His use of subtle imagery throughout the production was delightful, for example in the replacing of the town’s sign, or in the slow development of ‘The Visited’ characters costumes as they became more hopeful – even going as far as to renew the Mayor’s chain. One of the nicest touches was the subtle use of the colour red in costume to symbolise the degradation in the moral strength of ‘The Visited’. 
Ironically, this also highlighted one of the problems I experienced with Henderson’s direction; the failure to fully follow through or explore various directorial decisions. In her first appearance Claire Zachanassian (simultaneously a symbol of hope and a spark of greed for the township) associated herself with the colour red by donning a red headpiece and red bag. She did not appear in red again however, arguably numbing the visual effect as the township became greedy for her money and donned their red. This was also true of the blurred decision to mime half of the props which left the audience confused rather than fascinated. Despite this, Henderson should be applauded for creatively thinking beyond the obvious and, with a couple of exceptions, creating a wonderful cast dynamic with everyone pulling the same way.
Caroline Gaunt’s Zachanassian was steadily unnerving and she did a wonderful job juggling comedy with an absurdist nature in her unwavering goal of revenge. She eloquently showed depth of character in her different interactions with other actors, diversely portraying sympathy towards Alfred Ill (Tom Thorp), her past lover, as well as power over Gareth Davies’s brilliant ticket-master. At times however, her anger and desire could feel a little half-hearted and it would have been nice to see her fully explore the passions of the role – a talent which previous roles have shown Gaunt more than capable of. Thorp’s Alfred Ill was thoughtful, admirable and evocative of pity. As the unfortunate victim of his own past he captured the audience’s sympathy thoroughly, superbly exploring the varying nuances of his role and efficiently developing from ordinary townsman though outsider to hero. His one difficulty was portraying a man much older than himself, a tricky challenge for any student actor.
Beth Greenwood and Persephone Barda shone in their roles as the grotesque blind eunuchs Koby and Loby stealing the scenes in which they appeared. In fact Zachanassian’s entire entourage of ‘Visitors’ worked well - basing themselves upon recognisable stereotypes with minor alterations made to add interest and unpredictability of character. Special mention must also go to Sam Watkinson who, after a slow start, grew into his role of the Mayor wonderfully, winning over the audience with remarkable comic timing: “I’ve brought you a gun.” 
Crowd scenes were particularly entertaining as they contained plenty to look at with everyone doing their bit to maintain the overall energy and ambiance but scenes with fewer characters were less successful, losing pace and thus interest. The perfect example was the family car ride; it added very little to the production, and seemed to be included as a device to show-off a clever bit of staging. Scene changes were fluid and relaxed and lighting cleverly used to cut down the space and focus scenes. All in all Hill College Theatre Company’s production of The Visit was not perfect but very good throughout.

10 February 2010

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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