Maxim Gorky’s Russian family drama gets a conflicted adaptation from Mike Bartlett – ★★★

Vassa Zeheleznova has a lot on her plate – or rather, desk. An unpleasant Russian matriarch, she’s having to contend with a sick and dying husband, her boisterous offspring and a crumbling family business – all in a country on the brink of a revolution.

With children and acquaintances bursting through several doors into the wooden office space, Fly Davis’ set feels similar to Rob Howell’s work on Present Laughter. Meanwhile Vassa (Siobhán Redmond) struggling under pressure has an interesting parallel with its protagonist, actor Gary Essendine. The slight difference is that Gary complains about the life of fame with an enjoyable flamboyance, whereas Vassa moans about familial incompetence with vitriolic bluntness.

She is confident and self-assured in posture, but her dialogue is delivered with uncertainty. It jumps from scathing to sarcastic in a way which seems out of place, depriving her of the wit you would associate with her ice-cold character – even when sarcasm is considered its lowest form. The conflicted nature of Vassa’s humour only transfers to the audience, who, with scattered laughter, are unsure what tone the mother is striking. An early, sarcastic retort to her distraught son Pavel is sharply spoken, but the exaggeration and disdain is tired by the play’s conclusion.

The comic relief lingering in this bleak drama is equally as confused, mixing the witty, the farcical and the hyperbolic. The two main antagonists – the overly eccentric Mikhailo (Cyril Nri) and creepy Uncle Prokhor (Michael Gould) – feel panto-like in their villainy. Prokhor, at one point, arches his hands like some meddling mastermind. The humour is instead best placed in Vassa’s street savvy, finger-gunning son, Semyon (Danny Kirrane), as the only character with some disregard for the play’s dark tone with his enthusiasm for setting up a jewellery business.

As for Vassa’s company, it’s not quite clear what kind of business she runs, and beyond the sharp exterior and serial attacks on Pavel, few scenes show her internalising the stress she is under. As a result, whether ‘Vassa’ charts the breakdown of an individual or a company, its climax is as surprisingly abrupt and unsure as its cold-hearted protagonist.

Vassa played at the Almeida Theatre from 9 October 2019 to 23 November 2019.

Disclaimer: I was invited to see Vassa for free as someone who is currently a part of the Almeida Theatre’s Young Critics scheme, which sees us respond to artistic pieces. As part of the scheme I was asked to produce a review of the play. I did not receive any payment for my involvement in the scheme, and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

The original review can be found on the Almeida Theatre’s website.