The showing of Vassa, at the Almeida Theatre, grasps at too many straws at once, ultimately failing to grab a single one.
It’s safe to assume that reading Mike Bartlett’s adaptation of Vassa beforehand should have, to some extent, absolved me of crippling bemusement. Of course, any surprises were welcome, provided they be somewhat comprehensible. I can confirm that I was indeed surprised, and indeed- confused. An opportunity to poke fun at the outdatedness of capitalist fundamentalism in its heyday, perfectly juxtaposed with the revisionist thinking of a 2019 audience, was sorely, sorely missed. Instead, we got a gallimaufry of a distastefully jokey, “Arrested Development meets 1910 Russia”, loosely dramatic comedy.
Planting a freshly seated audience in the midst of a squabble over inheritance, infidelity and incertitude, served as a precedent to the pleasant chaos that would ensue- and conclude in the first ten minutes. The frenzied opening and closing of doors, characters exposing their inferiority complexes one after the other, the buzz of a large family whose sheer size made it impossible for everyone to actually get along: it all seemed to move to the beat of a Kalinka-esque rhythm. Commandeering the commotion at the centre was actress Siobhàn Redmond, truly in her element. In her role as the titular protagonist- or antagonist rather- her wit and indifference only served as a perpetual reminder that she is, in fact, surrounded by degenerates. Out of all the degenerates in her vicinity, I took to Vassa’s admirer/subordinate, Mikhailo, the most. Everything from his overly poised walk to his snivelling gesticulations, he was Mr Toad materialised- if Mr Toad had a lot less dignity. Like a freshly starched, white collar wearing graduate, on his first day at the job, actor Cyril Nri’s presence was unfaltering. Maybe a little too unfaltering in comparison to his co-stars; it’s not too far-fetched to believe that perhaps his character had just wandered onto the wrong stage, believing it to be a pantomime he was told to audition for by a street caster he’d met the day prior. It was hard to tell whether the rest of the cast could just not emulate his stamina, or that the direction Nri was instructed to take was purposefully or accidentally conflicting? Or both? All the same, Mikhailo felt lost. Gorky’s Mikhailo was the quintessential capitalist cog, disillusioned by the little control his higher-ups allowed him. He was the do-bidder not the go-getter, the joke not the comedian, the product not the pioneer. Yet, none of that translated enough to stick. Anything of significance that he was meant to allegorise drowned in a pool of comical appeasement.
There was a lot of this, loosely- might I add- comical appeasement, heavily sprinkled throughout the adaptation. At times, Vassa’s wit and sharp tongue revives us from the wobblier jokes (yes Semyon, I’m looking at jewel), but more often than not the performance was funnier when it tried not to be. It’s safe to assume the more offensive gags were meant to play into the satire, but when the mixture of genres blends more like oil and water than salt and water, it doesn’t land quite so well.
The contemplative moments, moments where the audience should have considered and could have reflected, fell just as flat. At the end of the second act, the most contemplative moment of them all was revealed: the climax. Momentarily, a hush swept the hall, all eyes on the lifeless body suspended by a noose… and that was the end of that. Bartlett’s intention was clear “look, this is ‘the human cost’, this is what it looks like”. But the key word here is momentary. The shock, as justifiable as watching an on-stage suicide can get, lasted until the drawing of the curtains, just in time for the interval. Yes, you may talk about it over your second glass of wine for the evening, but that would be it really. Flitting between states of tension, as unconscious or intentional as it may be, means sensitive moments like these can often feel odd. It’s akin to how the laid-back teacher everyone raved about in your school suddenly decided to put their foot down, only to find that their pupils were incapable of taking them seriously.
Genre fluidity is a very difficult thing to master, it’s formulaic, too much of one thing and you lose the other. Too much of everything, and you have nothing at all. Watching Bartlett’s adaptation of Vassa, is like watching a coming-of-age production on Bartlett’s adaptation of Vassa. Something that was not quite sure of itself, which in turn, left the audience not quite sure of what it was either.