When I saw Vassa, I was sceptical because many people have said that they didn’t like it. Maybe because of stilted plot, a lot was happening but at the same time, not a lot. Nothing seemed to matter and because of the somewhat unredeemable Vassa, there were few characters that the audience could get invested in and therefore, not a play worth seeing.
If I were to see it a second time, I’d try and focus on the other characters perhaps. But even then, that kind of thing shouldn’t be an afterthought as a first time viewer. Not everyone is going to see one theatre production twice. I enjoyed Act 3 with the explosive change in set with the funeral. Everything’s changed, people are starting to stand up to Vassa, her true nature is starting to be undeniable. There is a more abstract presence of the affect Vassa’s control has on the rest of the characters as the play progresses. I also love how the death of Lipa seems to be much more significant than the death of the “man in the house” which makes him not a character but a tool. A voice (a weak and dying voice) in the society that the play is set in but not one in this play.
So many times I got distracted from the other characters who often seemed childlike compared to a bored Vassa. Instead of watching the others bicker, I’d watch her wander around the edge of the stage, unnoticed as if these “moments of tension” were a dull affair. I say “moments of tension” in quotation marks because they didn’t feel tense. Just the pure presence of the character made me feel like nothing of significance was happening. It was powerful and impressive and I’m sure the whole point of this character; to act above it all – the squabbling and drama between the rest of the characters. She seemed like a puppet master tired of her craft.
Back to childlike and squabbling, there was too much of Pavel and not enough of Lyudmila. And I understand, Pavel is supposed to be despicable, he is built up to be this pathetic, whiny, unlikable figure, hated by his wife and mother (rightfully so, I think) and it doesn’t seem like the hatred came first. It got very old very quickly. It seems like this was always his character, this was always his personality, which makes it harder for the audience to enjoy him. And even worse when there was too much of him! He dominated the play and not in a good way. He was hard to ignore because he was so loud. Here we have Vassa – the namesake, the powerful puppet master, and to contrast – Pavel, the snivelling, annoying brat. We always know what he’s thinking, what he’s about to do, what he’s about to say after the first act which made him predictable (except for the last scene where there seems to be a moment where he’ll change but he just bounces back to how he was the entirety of the play) and essentially the one easiest to use as Vassa but my goodness. Was there really the point? There are eight other characters in this play, all infinitely more interesting than Pavel, so why in the story is there so much attention on him?
Lyudmila is the total opposite of Pavel, equally as childish sometimes but unlike the rest of the characters, she believes Vassa is good. In a moment of clarity in her character, she talks about a garden and it’s clear that she’s trapped in her role in the household and therefore society, being Pavel’s wife. She talks about it openly and freely with Anna and it’s strange to watch because I pitied her, definitely. She spoke as if she was naïve but I pitied her because of the situation she was in. Her words were about freedom but her tone seemed to be about something deeper. But that must’ve been bad acting because in the final act, she spoke again about the garden – the other characters seemed to be sick of it and I guess it was supposed to be funny but how is the audience supposed to know that this talk of this garden is annoying, this is only the second time the character is actually speaking! – and there seemed to be nothing underneath. It was frustrating, I wanted more! I wanted this character to turn around and reveal how smart she was, what the garden really meant to her. But instead, just revealed her devotion to the most evil character in the play.
Anna was probably the best character throughout. Appearing at the end of Act 1, a reflection of Vassa’s character that appears as a shock to the audience. She’s smart and ruthless with a sense of loyalty and kindness that we don’t see in Vassa’s character. And like Vassa, we assume she wants more, with a trace of betrayal somewhere just waiting to strike. But she’s just as helpless, there for something only Vassa can give her and therefore, is another puppet. But Anna isn’t like the other characters, or puppets, as it were – she has the close relations to her mother but unlike her siblings, has had a taste of the real world outside of this clearly broken, dysfunctional household. She’s strong and a contrast to Lyudmila – she seems to have less of a choice when it comes to how much she can play into Vassa’s hands and yet, she does it anyway – for the contract or because she is her daughter, we don’t know for sure.
This makes the ending much more striking. There’s Vassa holding Anna and Lyudmila close to her but really they couldn’t be further away. Anna is probably plotting the end of Vassa as the curtains fall and Lyudmila is about to run off again. I felt like this final image made it seem like this play was trying to be feminist. But there wasn’t enough of Lyudmila or Anna (though there was more from Anna) for the audience to feel anything. It was all taken up by ruddy Pavel! Even Lipa’s death seems to be shadowed by the dreams of the male characters, yet it’s ultimately what exposes Vassa’s character. We end with Vassa alone with the strongest characters – who just so happen to be female – with her with a changed and arguably more complicated relationship than before but we don’t feel anything because we don’t know enough about these characters. We weren’t routing for their victory or waiting for their downfall. We didn’t even know this was Vassa’s aim all along. In fact, what was Vassa’s motivation in the first place? What was the reason she wanted all of this money? To have control of her children for the rest of her life? To use this money to give the best chance for the women of this story beyond the play? Besides this, I cannot think of what else this play could be commenting on.
This is why the ending was unsatisfying. For a moment, Vassa seems to have a shred of humanity in her, and she shows it to Anna and Lyudmila which was extremely out of character. In Act 1, we see Vassa as stressed as a person can be and it’s almost heart breaking, especially since she barely has 2 seconds to let her guard down. This makes the character so much more interesting because she obviously cares about something and for a moment it doesn’t seem to be for herself. And yet, that’s the sense I got at the end. Perhaps the play was supposed to be unsatisfying and underwhelming. When a play intentionally ends for the audience to interpret, I can never tell whether I like it or not.
The quality of the production itself is at the standard expected for the Almeida, realistic set and costume, brilliant light and sound design that worked throughout which is always a good sign. The acting was fantastic, it was only Sophie Wu’s interpretation of her text in Act 2 that I found out of place, or perhaps that’s the director’s fault.