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Vassa by Maxim Gorky at the Almeida Theatre | Review

Vassa at the Almeida. Cyril Nri (Mikhail) and Alexandra Dowling (Lipa). Photo credit Marc Brenner
Vassa at the Almeida. Cyril Nri (Mikhail) and Alexandra Dowling (Lipa). Photo credit Marc Brenner

Conceptually interesting, droll and energetic – with some fine actorly moments – Tinuke Craig’s Vassa embraces too many genres, muddling the play’s central dramatic purpose and depriving us of the killer punches latent in Gorky’s text. This production nonetheless delivers moments of quality entertainment value with both excoriatingly unsympathetic character renderings and clownishly amusing performances from a fine cast. Whilst this production is unlikely to be regarded as a seminal revival in years to come, it still offers some laughs, plenty of talking points for the bar afterwards and is a worthy addition to the study set of fans of Russian/Soviet history and theatre.

Gorky was famously embraced by Stalin as a teller of stories acceptable to the revolutionary cause and director Craig makes clear she is not ignoring this work’s ‘message’ potential with her opening device. A projection above the curtain tells us two things: firstly, the play is set ‘before a revolution’ (but doesn’t specify which one) and, secondly, that ‘Capitalism is showing its age.’

Originally called Vassa Zheleznova (for its matriarch protagonist, played with aplomb by Siobhán Redmond in this production), the play was written in 1910, five years after the failed 1905 Russian Revolution but seven years before the more famous Bolshevik Revolution that transformed the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union. Given that the play emerged in the aftermath of a frustrated revolution (a point of great significance in the character drawing and dialogue), I remain confused as to why Craig felt the need for such heavy-handed foreboding and direct statement of her dramatic intentions. Surely such a move, whilst perhaps catchy and cinematic – or even Brechtian in certain regards – is already deflating the ‘show don’t tell’ potential of the ensuing drama? Should she have deemed that a certain amount of historical knowledge is pre-requisite for the story, I would have like to have seen it integrated dramatically.

Fly Davis’ set design takes us to a windowless, but multi-doored, wood-panelled everyplace that could be anything from mid-century modern to contemporary but is decidedly not early 20th century Russian provincial, even with a few imperial nods and knickknacks. The costume design is equally as ambivalent as the set; it neither states definitively we are not in the time the play was written nor does it create a specific analogue to another era. If this were a smaller, studio production with decidedly sparser trappings and a consistent acting style, the ‘no-mans-land’ quality might be effective. However, because much of the dramatic action hinges on specific moral judgements and understandable reactions from a century ago, the effect is confusing and clogs up our imaginations with the fruitless task of trying to figure out where we are or where we most certainly cannot be. The blend of visual styles and genres has the regrettable consequence of repeatedly breaking our wilful suspension of disbelief just as we’re prepared to accept the universality of family intrigue even if certain references are dated or historically-specific. Davis and Craig should have either agreed a distinctly unrecognisable time period and style or played it entirely straight with consistency; sadly, the hodgepodge of visual aesthetics mirrors the hodgepodge of tone and affect that is distracting rather than engaging.

Having said this, there are clever aspects to Davis’ scenic design and she conveys the claustrophobic and monitored energy of the multi-generational family estate to powerful effect. However, the many entrances and exits from nearly half-a-dozen symmetrically placed doors, together with Mike Bartlett’s salty modern adaptation and the farcical interventions of Danny Kirrane as Semyon (Vassa’s eldest son) and Kayla Meikle as his wife Natalya, do suggest a world of the Restoration’s William Wycherly or John Dryden. If Craig wanted to enact this play as an unsentimental comedy of manners, she could have and should have gone all the way with it. But she does not.

The projected statement that ‘Capitalism is showing its age’ sets out Craig’s central thesis that the ensuing story needs to illustrate. Yet this seems both vainglorious, blindingly obvious and not entirely true to the action we are offered. With scheming, blackmail, deceit and betrayal constant, we see these tensions rendered through a blend of styles that includes everything from bawdy farce to melodrama to splashes of expressionism to kitchen sink naturalism. With so much cacophony we can’t necessarily latch on to a jeremiad about capitalism nor be witnesses to the personal pain and conflict that is driving towards collective, revolutionary expression. Instead, we feel buffeted on a series of jags and riffs that fail to coalesce into harmonious story-telling.

The cast is strong. Michael Gould is especially good as morally bankrupt uncle Prokhor and Amber James is effective in changing the energy with her Act Two arrival, thanks to strong timing and instincts. Siobhan Redwood has the chops to enact the controlling, conniving and potentially conflicted titular role. However, these actors occupy an inconsistent world plagued by too many styles for the fullest realisation of the play’s potential.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

There are no miracles in this world. Only those we make for ourselves.
It’s 8am and a revolt is underway.

The father is dying. The son is spying. The wife is cheating. The uncle is stealing. The mother is scheming. The dynasty is crumbling.

One house. One fortune. One victor.

Tinuke Craig (Genesis Future Directors Award, Random/Generations) makes her Almeida debut with a new production of Maxim Gorky’s savagely funny play, adapted by multi award-winning playwright Mike Bartlett (Albion, King Charles III).

Adaptation Mike Bartlett
Direction Tinuke Craig
Design Fly Davis
Light Joshua Pharo
Sound Emma Laxton
Movement Jenny Ogilvie
Casting Annelie Powell CDG
Resident Director Tamar Saphra

Alexandra Dowling
Michael Gould
Arthur Hughes
Daniella Isaacs
Amber James
Danny Kirrane
Kayla Meikle
Cyril Nri
Siobhán Redmond
Sophie Wu

9 OCT 2019 – 23 NOV 2019


  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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