Review: Vassa at Almeida Theatre

Siobhan Redmond in Vassa at Almeida Theatre. Picture: Marc Brenner.

Siobhan Redmond in Vassa at Almeida Theatre. Picture: Marc Brenner. - Credit: Archant

When the titular Vassa, matriarch of the squabbling family in Mike Bartlett’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova, screams ‘Enough!’ during a blazing exchange in Act Three, it is a declaration shared by the audience.

Amber James and Sophie Wu play Anna and Lyudmila. Picture: Marc Brenner.

Amber James and Sophie Wu play Anna and Lyudmila. Picture: Marc Brenner. - Credit: Archant

This painfully inert 1905-set comedy-drama centres on a warring Russian dynasty rowing over the rights to an inheritance as a stricken patriarch lies off-stage battling ill health.

Vassa (Siobhan Redmond) is an emotionally brittle and imposing mother-and-wife who tends to the urgent calls from her physically impaired son, Pavel (Arthur Hughes), for the financial share that will enable his escape from the clutches of the family business. His wife, Lyudmila (Sophie Wu), meanwhile, has engaged in extramarital relations with his uncle, Prokhor (Michael Gould).

Around these figures are peripheral characters equally keen to compete for pole position on the grid of inheritance. All of these souls are wracked by insecurities and resentments. The misanthropic charge running through this play proves these are relationships as transactional as the capitalist system at which Gorky was really taking aim.

The walnut doors at the back of the stage open and clap like a train turnstile during rush hour as the players are established for Act One. This attempt at farce, however, has little in common with, say, the clockwork precision of a well-realised Molière and feels more like an orchestra set to work under the guiding hand of an inebriated conductor. There is a lack of cohesion and the tone is ill-judged.

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Across three acts Vassa aims for a mood somewhere in between serious and comic. Pistols are drawn verbally, and yet, paradoxically, the interplay is leaden and surprisingly lifeless. This is the result of miscasting across the board, and it is a fault that is present almost without exception.

It is disappointing to report that Vassa has about as much excitement and efficacy as watching an action blockbuster with the sound on mute. The beats that Gorky struck with this work might have been an excoriating critique on a fading economic and political system in his homeland, but the timeless elements of this play, which still have cache today, are sold short here.

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Rating: 1/5.

Continues at Almeida Theatre until November 23.

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