Black comedy is always a difficult balancing act. Billed as a “savagely funny” adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s classic novel - and promising to explore class war, gender politics and capitalist downfall - Vassa is a mixed bag of violence, revenge and warm-toned interior decor, but never quite reaches its full, outlandish potential.
Though Mike Bartlett’s contemporary adaptation is full of giddy melodrama, Vassa is largely played frustratingly safe. Instead of embracing its own absurdity, it feels like it undermines more farcical moments with a knowing nod; the chaos never takes off, responses feel stilted, and blistering one-liners are batted around without investment. Though maybe this was a directorial choice - building a world where trauma is part and parcel of everyday life - this makes it tricky to invest in anyone in particular; disbelief is so firmly suspended that not even the characters seem to care about what happens next. Add to this the manically varied renderings of the inhabitants of the Zheleznov household - Mikhailo (Cyril Nri) seems to exist in a totally different universe to Dunyechka (Daniella Isaacs) - and Vassa makes for slightly frustrating viewing.
Similarly, Vassa doesn’t quite follow through on its political aims. Many of its sharper jabs are some explicitly and provocatively problematic, often ableist or fatphobic. They feel misplaced, jarring and unnecessary, and as though they’re more about shock factor than nuanced critique. Though they’re self-evidently written as reflections of the characters’ own views (and not necessarily the production’s), there’s just no obvious conclusion that they drive towards. The production deals somewhat better with misogyny. Though the violence against women that underpins a lot of the story is unsettling, it feels more purposeful; the women scheme whilst the men throw punches; capitalism isn’t a game of brute force, but of cold-blooded tactics. “Well that’s what women do! Complain… And it makes sense. If you’re not allowed to do what you want, it’s all we’ve got left”. And though Vassa does sometimes stray into landing oh-so-quotable #feminist one-liners, the women in the production are relatively varied, sharp and three-dimensional. But given that Vassa is “set before a revolution”, it’s handling of misogyny can’t totally make up for its lukewarm efforts elsewhere. Overall, politically, Vassa leaves a lot to be desired.
Aesthetically, Vassa is on far firmer ground. With oversized doors which give the impression that anyone could be listening from anywhere, and an office full of beige opulence, Fly Davis’s design gives Vassa a refreshing kitsch-absurdist bite. Similarly, Emma Laxton’s sound design is minimalist yet zany, bookending acts and giving the space a sense of lived-in-ness, chiming excellently with Bartlett’s madcap world of tragicomic potential. Together with Joshua Pharo’s lighting, Vassa’s design helps build a universe around a production which otherwise struggles to make sense of itself.
Overall, Vassa is one of those productions which could be excellent, but doesn’t quite push the boat out far enough. With a slightly confused trajectory and performances that don’t totally gel with one another, as well as questionable political aims, Vassa is worth a watch, but lacks the attack that Bartlett’s text demands.