Theatre review: Vassa at the Ameida Theatre, London
The Almeida Theatre, 2019
Written by Maxim Gorky
Director: Tinuke Craig
Cast: Alexandra Dowling, Michael Gould, Arthur Hughes, Daniella Isaacs, Amber James, Danny Kirrane, Cyril Nri, Siobhán Redmond, Sophie Wu
Almeida Theatre, London - 19th October 2019
Written in 1910 during a critical period in Russian history, there doesn't appear to be any deep Chekhovian soul-searching in Maxim Gorky's Vassa Zheleznova or any real grappling with the nature of Russian society during this period. Essentially a comedy, a parody or a satire, the play does however have interesting points to reveal on the nature of Russian family life and how it might adapt - or fail to adapt - to the changing society in the years preceding the Russian Revolution.
Whether that has any application or relevance for contemporary life in the UK is unlikely and any parallel would be tenuous at best, so it's difficult to see what would draw the Almeida to stage a new updated production of Vassa adapted by Mike Bartlett. It's perhaps not a great play by any means, but it certainly has the potential to be an entertaining one from the point of view of it being a good ensemble piece with a lot of interesting characters and particularly for it having a strong - almost vicious - leading female role for an actor to really go to town on.
Unfortunately the Almeida lost their planned lead Samantha Bond to a back injury, leaving Siobhán Redmond to step in at very short notice to carry the critical central role of Vassa Zheleznova, the ambitious and ruthless mother of a very dysfunctional family. To her credit Redmond is impressive, giving a pivotal central performance that holds the play together, and she does it with a degree of flair, knowing when to hold back and rein in and how to deliver those vicious barbs for maximum effectiveness. The performances of the rest of the cast however are all uniformly excellent, with plenty of spiteful characters to keep the tensions boiling.
And Vassa is indeed determined to hold it together in the face of the considerable difficulties and challenges that face the family business. Her husband, the patriarch of the family, is dying but taking a long time to get around to it and Vassa doesn't intent to leave the outcome or the contents of his will to chance, particularly with an extended family who are already at each other's throats. The business will not survive those kind of divisions in the current economic climate so she is making plans to redraw the will to her own advantage.
Vassa is a biting satire of Russian family life and society. Living together in close proximity under the same roof, the relationships between the generations and in-laws are marked by suspicion, betrayal, in-fighting, jealousy, infidelity and of course disputes over money and position. The Almeida's production gets the whole complicated web of intrigues out there in a series of rapid entrances and exit through a back wall of wooden doors, figures walking on, listening in, overhearing plots and secrets. There's humour in each of those situations as well as a certain amount of bitterness and underlying darkness for the realities.
Adapted by Mike Bartlett with plenty of contemporary phrasing and swearing, some of the cruel jibes and actions - particularly on the part of Vassa - seem a little unrealistic and more of a determined attempt to push the situations towards parody, but the adaptation and direction does draw out interesting distinctions between the behaviour of the men and women here. The women are certainly much more capable of dealing with the practical realities, without sentimentality or idealism, and Vassa does what she does because it needs a firm hand. There's no time to be concerned with social niceties or outdated ideals about family loyalty in the current economic climate.
Those contrasts between the male and female roles are well brought out in Tinuke Craig's direction. The sons have a certain amount of lazy indulgence, expecting what is theirs by right - including their authority over their wives. The daughters and wives, along with Vassa, can see the wind of change (the servants not so much under the new regime), battling every step of the way with the outdated social attitudes and traditions, and they are stronger for it. There's little doubt who is going to come out on top and in a corrupt system; it's going to be who is most ruthless. Perhaps there's contemporary application in Vassa after all.