Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Vassa

Thursday, November 14, 2019

✭✭

by Maxim Gorky, adapted by Mike Bartlett, directed by Tinuke Craig

Almeida Theatre, London, GBR

October 16-November 23, 2019

Vassa: “Everyone’s out for themselves. They always are”

When people speak of seeing Russian drama in North America, they are mostly referring only to Anton Chekhov. Some may know of The Government Inspector (1836) of Nikolai Gogol (1809-52). Fewer may know of A Month in the Country (1855) by Ivan Turgenev (1818-83. From the plays that are actually performed, one would never know that Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) was also a major Russian playwright. Neither the Stratford Festival nor the Shaw Festival, where Gorky’s work fits right in the centre of the Festival’s original mandate, have ever staged a play by Gorky. The last time a play by Gorky was performed in Toronto was when the Ryerson Theatre School staged his Summerfolk (1905) in 2012.

Luckily, this narrow view of Russian drama does not obtain in the UK where Gorky’s Vassa is playing at the Almeida Theatre in an adaptation by Mike Bartlett, author of King Charles III (2014). The Almeida previously staged the play in 1999. Vassa, originally Vassa Zheleznova (Васса Железнова) was first published in 1910, six years after Chekhov’s death, but not staged in Russia until 1935. It’s easy to see why since the play’s fierce satire of capitalism and would hardly have played well after the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. At a time like the present when politicians even in the United States are beginning to question the benefits of capitalism, the play seems even more relevant than ever.

From the point of view of those who know Chekhov, Vassa appears like a deliberate attack on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904). In Chekhov’s play a family led by aristocrat Lyubov Ranevskaya gather at the family home to discuss how to save the failing estate. Chekhov depicts the family and its friends as so ineffectual and caught in sentimentality – Ranevskaya’s son died at the estate – that they are unable to do anything. In contrast, the merchant Yermolai Lopakhin, who has risen from the lower classes, has a plan for saving the estate but one that would involve cutting down the family’s cherished cherry orchard.

In Vassa, Gorky presents the complete reverse. There is no room for sentimentality here and those who don’t push forward will be trampled under foot. The matriarch of the family Vassa Zheleznova is no delicate Ranevskaya. She and her husband are like cruder versions of Lopakhin and have used all their wiles to rise financially in business and become rich. When the play opens Vassa (Siobhán Redmond) is busy at her desk running the family company while her husband Zakhar is dying upstairs. All Vassa’s son Semyon (Danny Kirrane) can think of is what he will do with the money he will inherit. Vassa’s other son Pavel (Arthur Hughes), is preoccupied with the fact that his young wife Natalya (Kayla Meikle) is cheating on him and that nobody cares or will do anything to stop her.

As it happens, Natalya is having an affair with Vassa’s seriously unwell brother-in-law Prokhor (Michael Gould). Events become complicated when Vassa’s daughter Anna (Amber James) arrives and is aghast to discover her family’s state of moral decline, not that she has any high ground to stand on since she married her husband for money and has been cheating on him ever since. Because Prokhor plans to take any money he inherits out of the family company, Vassa and her company manager Mikhail (Cyril Nri), decide to shorten Prokhor’s life. That failed attempt is followed by suicide and murder.

Yet, this is a comedy, albeit a very black comedy. Gorky depicts the gruesome humour of a dog-eat-dog world where every character, except for the two servants Lipa (Alexandra Dowling) and Dunya (Daniella Isaacs), takes advantage of everyone else. The servants are verbally and physically abused throughout. In fact, Gorky’s prime imagery refers to people killing other people’s pets.

To emphasize the satiric nature of the play, designer Fly Davis has set all the action in Vassa’s office which is one large step down from the surrounding walls as if Vassa lived in the depths of a pit. Davis gives the wood-panelled room five doors as if it were the set for a farce. Davis had moved the action from 1910 to some vague period between 1960 and 1980 before the widespread introduction of personal computers. Except for the characters’ names and the presence of a samovar on Vassa’s desk, the action could thus take place anywhere. Director Tinuke Craig keeps events moving at a rapid pace and allows the actors to use contemporary facial expressions and gestures.

Siobhán Redmond gives a sensational performance as Vassa. Redmond makes Vassa seem merely stern on the outside, not much more threatening than a concentrating librarian. Yet, this outwardly calm appearance only makes the vicious and cruel things she says seem more horrible. Despite this calm, Redmond also shows that Vassa’s constant state of fury is taking its toll. By the end we wonder whether Vassa, having achieved what she wishes, can hold herself together much longer.

Of Vassa’s family members, Anna as played by Amber James is the most sympathetic. As James allows us to discover, Anna has merely taken her mother’s technique to a higher level. Her pleasant, open demeanour causes people to confide in her, giving her more information to feed her schemes.

As Prokhor, the most repulsive of Vassa, relations, Michael Gould gives us a man whose cynicism and unscrupulousness know no bounds. Gould makes us feel uncomfortable at his presence from the very first. The fact that he knows he doesn’t have long to live, only seems to have given Gould’s Prokhor licence to move on to greater sins.

Vassa’s two sons are a study in contrast. Danny Kirrane makes Semyon an overconfident, blustering fool while Arthur Hughes makes Pavel a whining nuisance. Pavel calls himself a cripple and Hughes does have a radial ray anomaly. This reality makes Pavel’s criticism of himself as “ugly” and Vassa’s cruel ridiculing of him more unsettling.

Curiously, the one person who seems least affected by all the backbiting around her is Lyudmila. Sophie Wu gives us a young woman who appears to live happily in her own fantasy world where she remains untouched by accusations of adultery or incest. As Mikhail, Cyril Nri is the only one of the cast to try to use mugging with the mistaken intent of being funnier. Nri’s best moments are when he tries to convince the innocent maid Lipa that killing a sick man like Prokhor with his own medicine is not the same as murder.

Mike Bartlett’s version of Vassa is an adaptation and he has made many changes. He has Vassa’s dying husband called Zakhar rather than the original’s Sergei and, unlike Gorky, does not have him appear. Bartlett eliminates the character of Rachelle, another of Vassa’s daughters-in-law and changes Anna from Vassa’s secretary to her older daughter. Most importantly, Bartlett does not have Vassa die at the end of the play. Rather, he presents her as triumphant but mentally beginning to crack.

One often hears how few good roles there are for female actors over 50. Yet, in Vassa, who admits to being 60, we have the meaty role of a woman who will do anything to hold on to her power, even if it means betraying everyone around her. It is a role every fine female actor of a certain age should have the chance to essay. And it is a play every audience who thinks Chekhov is the only voice of Russian drama should have the chance to hear.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive. 

Photos: (from top) Siobhán Redmond as Vassa; Alexandra Dowling as Lipa, Daniella Isaacs as Dunya, Siobhán Redmond as Vassa, Kayla Meikle as Natalya, Sophie Wu as Lyudmila, Michael Gould as Prokhor, Arthur Hughes as Pavel, Cyril Nri as Mikhail and Amber James as Anna. © Marc Brenner.  

For tickets, visit almeida.co.uk.