By Austin Zheng 14A01B
Additional Reporting by Gao Wenxin 14A03A
‘I know what the world’s like. Because I own it.’
– Claire Zachanassian
Would you kill for a million pounds?
Yes, you would.
Such is the inevitable conclusion of the Raffles Players’ rendition of The Visit, a 1956 tragicomedy by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. A chilling tale of human weakness and wickedness, The Visit follows the inhabitants of an impoverished town named Guellen as they slowly cave in to temptation, accepting the offer of millionairess Claire Zachanassian and killing her former lover, Alfred Ill, for a million pounds.
It is particularly difficult to perform tragicomic plays well, since the actors have to deftly manoeuvre between the comic and tragic aspects, and ensure that they complement, rather than undermine, each other. The Players did manage to pull it off (made an admirable effort to pull it off), but their comedy fell short one too many times. This was due to the play’s darker portions overshadowing the humour, imperfect comic timing, or even the inherent blandness of some self-inserted jokes. Puns like ‘Are you ill? / No, I’m scared!’, for instance, failed to elicit an audience response amidst the frightened desperation of Alfred Ill. Furthermore, the more light-hearted scenes at the start of the play were diminished by their confusing, muddled nature. The inconsistent humour was unfortunate, especially since the comedy was largely executed well, with several uproariously funny moments.
Overall, the production was very enjoyable, in large part due to the adept acting. Aaheli Tarafdar was the star of the show, commanding the stage as the twisted, imperious and tragic Claire Zachanassian. One caveat, however, is that Aaheli did not portray her character’s sorrow, indignation or bittersweet, distorted love as convincingly as her callous dominance. Even when Claire Zachanassian was reminiscing about her childhood love and abandonment with Alfred in Konrad’s Village Wood, Aaheli’s tone remained predominantly haughty. While her gestures and expressions hinted at a greater complexity to Claire Zachanassian, her tone and the speed of her delivery did not quite mesh with her changing emotions, resulting in a largely one-dimensional, though nonetheless admirable, portrayal of her character.
The play’s lead actor, Ejaz Latiff, was also exceptional as Alfred Ill, being smoothly charismatic as a lover, aggressively paranoid as a victim of persecution, and calmly resigned as a man who had accepted his fate. And though he was a supporting actor, Aeron Ee deserves special mention with a magnificent performance as the mayor, alternatingly bumbling, grave, pained and casually threatening. Unfortunately, some of the other actors were less polished, with their performances suffering from irritating accents, insipid gestures, or even incomprehensible screaming. This made certain scenes, such as the townspeople’s scrambled preparation for Claire Zachanassian’s arrival at the start of the play, rather bewildering.
A particularly outstanding aspect of the production was the Players’ alterations in their casting, which also reinforced The Visit’s surrealistic undertones. Faced with a lack of manpower for the original play’s large cast, they replaced Claire Zachanassian’s husbands with hand puppets that were controlled by her butler. The puppets illustrated the husbands’ disposability, facelessness, foolishness and complete subservience, bringing a new dimension to Claire Zachanassian’s line ‘You only have husbands for display purposes, they shouldn’t be useful.’ Similarly, the mayor’s wife and grandchildren were replaced by cardboard cut-outs, emphasising how he also primarily used them for decorative purposes. Indeed, the innovative way in which the Players simultaneously resolved their practical problems and illuminated The Visit’s thematic concerns was nothing short of impressive.
Conversely, the set changes were far from ideal, with the stage hands being clearly visible and audible for extended periods of time. This soon became distracting after multiple scene changes. Consequently, the emotional impact of certain scenes were undercut, most notably hindering the audience from fully digesting the implications of Claire Zachanassian’s ominous ‘I’ll wait’ as she expressed a cold confidence that the townspeople would eventually murder Alfred. The constant switching of spotlights from Alfred to Claire Zachanassian during the balcony scene was also jarring. The sets themselves, though, were well-crafted, and the lighting atmospheric, allowing the audience to visualise the derelict Guellen and appreciate the play’s simple, rural setting. The neat, well-stocked shelves and soft lighting of Alfred Ill’s weathered shop, for instance, gave an impression of a man (initially) comfortable in his hometown, despite its poverty.
Ultimately, while the production did have considerable room for improvement, it was a remarkable and memorable performance that overcame its flaws, with the play becoming more engaging as it progressed. Nevertheless, it is a true pity that the Players did not quite live up to their vast potential, given the solid cast and insightful alterations.