Mike Bartlett’s adaption from Maxim Gorky’s 1910 play begins with a wooden sign. It is lowered briefly to inform us, “Capitalism is showing its age.” The choice for this message to be told, as opposed to shown, feels forced. A kinder reading would find it somewhere between glee and a self-satisfied wink, but as Britain limps along through years of Conservative party rule, with the most vulnerable in society bearing the brunt of austerity, I wonder who the imagined audience is for Vassa, for this message to have been felt as needing to be made so explicit.
Vassa captures a pivotal moment in the lives of a merchant class family. The patriarch is close to death, and family members take this opportunity to vy for money and power. Vassa is the cruel nucleus of this household, full of manipulations and threats. She is supposedly fearsome. Despite never being scared of her ourselves, the audience watches servants flinch at her words, family members grovelling carefully. Vassa is to embody a ruthless drive for profit that comes at the expense of her family and ultimately her sanity. Yet this never translates- Siobhan Redmond’s swooping arm gestures and theatrical speech takes the sting out of her words, the power out of her threat. Vassa, mean without the menace, is rendered instead a pantomime villain.
What resulted was a strange tonal problem - the play feels intended as a tragi-comedy. Armed with the best lines of Bartlett’s witty and sharp writing, Danny Kirrane as Semyon generates easy laughs from the audience. The more tragic moments were lacklustre in comparison, and were easily overshadowed by Kirrane’s comedy talent. It was a strange imbalance to strike. This could be attributable to the overall direction of the play, which felt meandering. The play lacked intention towards the proposed subject matter as promised by the wooden sign we began with.
The dour set design does the most in reminding us of the play’s message. Fly Davis’s fake wood panelling brings gloomy 70s interior design to the stage, which works well here. The doors that line the walls work to create a paranoid atmosphere as characters came in and out suddenly, or were found to be listening in. The audience could understand why the characters scrambled so desperately for their inheritance, and the possibility of leaving their trap of a home.
However, the stakes never did feel high enough for tension to be created. The introductory nudge-nudge-wink-wink criticism of capitalism that opened the play strives to make Vassa relevant, but this rather muted handling alienates instead.