La Visita de la Vella Dama: macabre take on a creepy classic

Catalan adaptation of the play by Friedrich Dürrenmat

Sharp-toothed tragi-comedy La Visita de La Vella Dama (Der Besuch der Alten Dame), directed by Jordi Palet Puig with Vicky Peña and Xavier Capdet in the leading roles, works great in this astute Catalan adaptation that uses creepy puppets as characters, the work of the inventive Farrés brothers. Written in the 1950s by the politically-active Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Visit (English title) is a deliciously disturbing parable that touches on themes that are prescient today: wronged women, past crimes and present justice, malignant conformism and moral cowardice.
The play tells the story of Claire Zachanassian, a billionairess by marriage who returns to her home village after a 50-year absence. She is royally welcomed on her return by citizens who once couldn’t wait to get rid of her. They are hoping for a cash hand out to save the village that has sunk into poverty. Yet the crocodile-like Claire offers them a sinister deal: a million in cash in exchange for the life of the man who disgraced her.
Peña is super as the flame-haired Zachanassian, a despicable yet likeable figure, which Dürrenmatt in the afterword of his play describes as “something like Medea”. “[She] has a sense of humour … a rare grace … a wicked charm” he insisted, all of which Peña has, plus a few things of her own. The accused, a man called Ill (Capdet) is an amiable family man with a none-the-wiser expression. He makes such an unlikely former lover of Zachnassian that it certainly says something about the power of the patriarchy.
Dürrenmat’s text, loaded with irony, is simply written yet deceptively intelligent. In continual conversation with the conventions of Greek tragedy, while the chorus at the end is cut in this version, and the visual elements inevitably upstage the spoken word favoured by the Greeks, the Catalan La Visita retains the universality of the characters and honours the play’s light / dark tones. Shifting between sharp satire and stagey melodrama and between puppets and people provides an interesting challenge for the sympathies of the audience. Unpack the childishness, the outrage and the absurdity and within find an even more macabre truth.

La Visita de la Vella Dama
Teatre Lliure – Gràcia
until Feb. 4th