In a rare proscenium-style presentation at the Almeida Theatre, director Tinuke Craig offers Maxim Gorky’s Vassa as her debut production for the venue in a new adaptation by Mike Bartlett. Whatever the mark was meant to be in this joint effort, however, neither seems to have hit it.
The humour is unsettlingly ambiguous.
The full-length, dark blue curtain draws back to reveal Fly Davis’ blandly brown, laminate wood-panelled walls and beige carpets that create a space reminiscent of a GHQ, with a large desk centre stage covered in papers with piles more underneath. This room forms the administrative hub of a struggling business in a building that is also the family’s home. It suggests no particular period, other than one with little taste and the costumes add to the confusion. If one wanted to be very generous it might, perhaps, all be designed to heighten the timelessness of the play’s themes.
Ruling this dysfunctional mini Russian empire is the formidable matriarch, Vassa Zheleznova (Siobhán Redmond), whose name, as Rosalind Bartlett points out in a programme article, means ‘of iron’. Her ability to control is by no means absolute, however, and she is often preoccupied with damage limitation. That doesn’t prevent her initiating an abundance of Machiavellian schemes to further her own ends at the expense of others. She has her work cut out covering embarrassing histories, current sleaze and future ambitions in a world where no one is to be trusted. As succinctly put by the Almeida itself, in this crowded house ‘the father is dying. The son is spying. The wife is cheating. The uncle is stealing. The mother is scheming. The dynasty is crumbling.’
This chaotic mix comes vividly to life on stage in a production that’s as messy as the character’s lives. The vehicles of tragedy, comedy, farce and black comedy enter the theatrical roundabout, sometimes giving way, sometimes overtaking, sometimes hogging the road, but crashes always loom heavily and sometimes carnage ensues. None of these styles is able to establish itself as a satisfying genre to hold the play together. There are enough dead bodies for a tragedy and more annoyingly slamming doors than the average Whitehall farce, but it never fully becomes either. The humour is unsettlingly ambiguous, questioning whether it is simply funny, dark, sick or tasteless. Redmond’s performance, at times sterling, manoeuvres it’s way around this labyrinth of uncertainty and acerbic exchanges assisted by the rest of the cast who appear as victims and villains, comedians and sad cases. Moments of shambolic blocking add to the unease along with Joshua Pharo’s lighting that casts shadows all over the place.
It’s an unusual spectacle at the Almeida that sits uncomfortably in the theatre. Whatever the intention behind Vassa, this feuding production fails to satisfy as either a critique of capitalism or as a coherent piece of drama.