Maxim Gorky’s rather overlooked 1910 play Vassa Zheleznova is reworked by playwright Mike Bartlett (King Charles III), but the production is neither convincingly modern nor evocative of the political tumult in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. References to surveillance, unrest and workers rising up against the system feel rather abstract as the emphasis stays on family politics.
The play explores the frustration and futility of striving to make money for heirs who are entitled and unworthy. The titular Vassa is matriarch and master of the family business while her terminally ill husband deteriorates out of sight. Actor Siobhán Redmond, who stepped in at the last minute after Samantha Bond injured her back, portrays Vassa with a mix of comedy and conniving cunning. She bullies her disabled, cukolded son (played with zest by Arthur Hughes) for being ‘weak’ and ‘ugly’; she blackmails a vulnerable young servant girl; she spies and schemes to protect the family fortune.
There’s plenty of fun in the Mean Mother / Nasty Woman trope, but it’s a rather shallow portait. We laugh but don’t manage to fully invest or feel moved by Vassa’s character arch.
After a series of infidelities, unwanted pregnancies and cruel taunts, it’s clear this is a toxic family. And there's a Chekhovian sense of of stultification, as the characters talk of going to the town, but remain frozen. The production is so overstuffed and tonally varied, we're never quite sure what it's supposed to feel. Forced moments of farce fail to gel with attempts at emotional intensity.
As the emphasis shifts from inept sons to determined daughters, the play ends on an ambiguous note, reminding that strong wills and cold ambitions can’t drown out maternal devotion and guilt.
|What||Vassa, Almeida Theatre review|
|Where||Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, Islington, London, N1 1TA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Highbury & Islington (underground)|
07 Oct 19 – 23 Nov 19, 12:00 AM
|Price||£10 - £42.50|
|Website||Click here for more information|