‘The Visit’ with the original title ‘The Visit of an Old Woman’, is a tragicomedy written in German by Swiss playwright, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and translated by Maurice Valency. Dürrenmatt based most of his plays around his post-World War 2 experiences. Scripted in 1956 when Friedrich was 35, the play became a film in 1964. Although the play is supposed to be a comedy, it has a very disconcerting, chillingly dark humour throughout. This VERY different play is being presented by Gap 1 of The Actors’ Hub, an innovative and highly respected, Perth acting school, whose aim is to stretch any dedicated actor’s talents, and demand the highest calibre of performance – hence their motto ‘Dream. Dare. Do’.
‘The Visit’ is the first production to play at The Actors’ Hub new venue at 129 Kensington Street, East Perth. With tiered seating, it holds around 50 patrons in comfortable armchairs. The 90-minute, bizarre performances begin at 7.00 pm each evening until the 28th October, with a 2.00 pm Saturday matinée.
The Hub tends to have very simple, symbolic sets as this makes the actors work harder to create atmosphere and have a more precise delivery. Jamie Davis (set design and construction) has surrounded the stage with hessian drapes, depicting the poverty of the village. In a far corner is a hotel room balcony, with tables and chairs. The major prop was the pinewood casket. This versatile coffin became a shop counter and then an altar.
Sophia Gilet operated Dean Morris’ fine lighting design. The stunning stereoscopic soundscape was devised by Tim Newhouse and operated by Justin Gray.
The scene is a small village, Güllen Switzerland 1970.
The poverty-stricken town of Güllen (which is German ‘to spread liquid manure’) is in terrible disrepair. It is night-time and the in-bred villagers are out hunting in the woods. When an ex-native of the town, billionairess Claire Zachanassian (Tia Rose Cullen – Tues, Thurs, Sat, Chloe Gaskell – Wed, Fri, Sat) announces that she will return for a visit, the lazy locals hope for financial relief.
The town gathers at the railway station for Claire’s arrival, a woman (Tyler Kirk) is painting a large ‘Welcome’ banner; a gymnast (David Doig) practises his display. The station master (Grace Goodhew) and policeman (Sam Barbas) try to control the mob. The Mayor (Richard Maganga) is head of the reception party, but the trains simply pass through. Two reporters (Rachel Lewis, Justine Cerna) find that the disabled and disfigured diva, and her massive entourage – including two gangster bodyguards, Roby (Jared Stephenson) and Toby (Ricky Melwani) – have arrived on an earlier train. General store owner, Alfred (surname is ‘ill’, Josh Hogben), now in his sixties was once Claire’s boyfriend. Even though Alfred jilted her when she became pregnant, he agrees to ask her for a ‘donation’ for the town. Despite being accompanied by her husband (Kit Goodridge), Claire appears to carry on with Alfred where she left off, decades earlier.
The Mayor puts on a special ‘Homecoming’ carnival, where Claire, filled with supressed rage, announcing that she will donate one million dollars – half to the town, and the other half to be shared by the needy residents. Their joy is short lived when Claire’s butler, Bobby (Bakri Mohammed), who was once the Lord Chief Justice of Güllen, reveals the conditions of the gift. It would be paid only when Alfred was dead. The reason? At Claire’s 1910 paternity suit against Alfred, he presented two false witnesses, Koby and Loby (Brittany Paul, Stephanie Bedford), and unjustly won the case. Alfred then went on to marry Matilda (Sylvia Cornes) for her store! A poverty stricken, single parent, Claire became a prostitute. Claire was thus imposing a death sentence on Alfred for his crime against her; in a country where there was no longer any death sentence.
Alfred was reassured by the support of the locals, but as time went by, the townsfolk became impatient for their money. Alfred had to ask for police protection and the Mayor’s support, but gets neither. When Claire’s pet black panther escaped, Alfred was very worried – as ‘black panther’ was her sweetheart name for him. She renames the people she meets and in doing so, makes them her property. The Priest (Patrick Truman-Healy) also refused to help, but advised Alfred to move to Australia.
Claire re-weds in the Güllen Cathedral. The local doctor (Talia Hart) tells her how the village finances are now dire. The kind, considerate but weak, schoolmaster (Gillian Mosenthal) begs her to have compassion and end her desire for revenge.
Will Claire relent, or will there be an ‘eye for an eye?’ and could Alfred die?
The director is WAAPA graduate, Amanda Crewes. Amanda is from a family of actors, so has ‘lived theatre’ for her whole life. Although teaching is now one of her passions, Amanda has proved her ability, by performing in major productions around Australia.
Amanda has made it obvious to the large cast that in this very busy and unusual play, there are no ‘bit players’, everyone has a definite and important character that must be expressed to the full. The cast were magnificent. Get the walk right and the personality will follow; some of the walks brought a smile, others were fascinating, but Tia’s walk incorporated Claire’s spine, hips and bandy legs – a special performance. One Canton of Switzerland did not get full Women’s Rights until 1990, so Claire’s disabilities signified her literally being on an uneven footing.
There are numerous enlightening messages within this story that had to be depicted. People and morals – especially when money is involved. Greed and dishonour. Revenge and justice. Forgiveness or even plain humanity are not Claire’s strong points.
There is a disturbing, icy rationalisation in the logic of the morbid script. The cast played the black humour straight, giving the fantastic and grotesque situation an extra edge. At the other extreme, the woodland scene had the cast interpreting the noise of the wind in the trees, bird warbling, woodpeckers, crickets, they were all there. A very clever piece of theatre.
Every character in this richly written play is faced with an acting challenge – conquered with sublime success.