Three and a half hours. It's a long time to spend in the theatre, even in the presence of Shakespeare. Perhaps Tony Kushner took a look at the National's forbiddingly large Olivier stage and thought: Only a play to rival Hamlet in length will do. How else to explain his punitively long version of Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1956 black comedy, a play that in its original incarnation runs in my 1962 edition to just over 100 pages?
Enough carping for a minute or two. Jeremy Herrin's (three and a half hour long!) production, which lavishly recreates Kushner's 1950s small-town setting, at least gives audiences the chance to see on stage the peerless Lesley Manville. She plays Claire Zachanassian, a woman seemingly made out of money and prosthetic limbs (one leg is painted china; at one point a fake hand of hers skittles across the floor) who, after many decades away, arrives back in her hometown of Slurry, fairy godmother style. We first see her materialise from behind a puff of smoke left by a departing train. Her purpose is seemingly munificent: to lavish some of her many self-made billions on the once prosperous Slurry, which is now sliding, like so much of post-war industrial America at the time, towards the scrap heap. Her motivation, however, is revenge. In return for her money, the town must give her the head of Alfred (Hugo Weaving, in a thankless everyman role), her childhood sweetheart who abandoned her and, unwittingly, their unborn child, many years ago.
Manville relishes every weird, fabular element of Claire, who is the sort of larger-than-life Hollywood horror story that divorces in the afternoon a man she married in the morning. She's the world's richest woman who travels with a coffin (for Alfred), a pet panther and two deeply strange and terrifying identical looking servants – formerly husbands, bound and blinded seemingly at her behest – yet Manville makes this pantomime villain palpably real: a woman hardened into steel by untold wealth, loneliness and heartbreak. She soon has the town under her uncanny spell, and Kushner lavishes much of his time and ours on the many discussions that ensue, as the decent Slurry town folk wonder whether their initial outraged refusal of Claire's outrageous offer was, when all's said and done, really the right decision after all.
Herrin's languorous production pursues the same maximalist approach as Kushner. Visually it's a marvel, with Vicki Mortimer's set design resembling, with the help of the Olivier's revolve stage, a moving picture reel of small-town American life, from station platform to Main Street to nearby forest to the interior of Alfred's shop where the townsfolk, giddy on a sudden influx of free credit made available by guess who, go mad buying up consumer goods in dinky sweetshop colours. There are some terrific moments – that shop scene; some lovely, stately chorus-girl-style choreography devised by Aletta Collins; an unexpectedly moving encounter between Claire and Weaving's humdrum but increasingly wrenchingly paranoid Alfred among the trees.
Yet Durrenmatt's play is a sharp, macabre, expressionistic satire. Kushner's version is a verbose, literal-minded epic, and, alas, ne'er the twain should meet. The play's original potent mythic register and its pointed, multi-pronged attacks on the dehumanising impact of capitalism and the dangers of monetising justice lose their savage power amid Kushner's bloated use of language, endlessly proliferating tableaux-style scenes in which a lot is said but nothing happens and the slow, tension-vaporising progression towards the inevitable ending. Manville is wonderful of course. But really, that running time. Did I mention it's three and a half hours long?