Despite excellent performances from a strong cast, this explosive pre-revolutionary Russian family drama falls flat as it loses its historical bearings.
Siobhan Redmond’s performance as Vassa, the matriarch trying to save her family business from ruin, is impressive. Her savage insults, brutal honesty and willingness to do whatever it takes lies in sharp contrast to her comedically useless and melodramatic family. Cyril Nri plays the slimy, cunning and sycophantic Mikhalio brilliantly, but it is Amber James’ understated and layered performance as Vassa’s estranged daughter, Anna, that feels the most powerful.
The money hungry attitude of both Vassa and her children is at the heart of the play. Her lazy, self-obsessed children squabble over their inheritance, each of them planning to abandon the family business for their own pipedreams. Vassa’s own attempts to control her children have failed, manipulating her husband’s will and resorting to extreme means to secure control of the family estate. Everyone is out for themselves, and it’s this selfish drive for profit that ultimately destroys the family. The final act sees the whole cast on stage, pushing against the walls as if the room is caving in on them. This claustrophobic and pressured atmosphere explodes as her children reveal their plans to take their inheritance and leave the business, and their mother, for good. But they’ve underestimated her, failing to foresee the lengths she’s willing to go to secure her position as matriarch of the business and family. Despite winning her game of manipulation and scheming, Vassa is left with a crumbling business and a broken family.
And yet, this commentary on capitalism and class falls slightly short. A projection at the beginning states the play is set ‘before a revolution’, and there are brief references to imperial Russia’s Duma system, new ideas critiquing work and an increased police presence on the streets. And yet there’s no real tangible sense that we’re seeing a pre-revolutionary Russian merchant family who are about to experience the impact of an imploding economic & class system. We see in Vassa, a family whose greed and corruption has destroyed relationships, marriages and livelihoods, and profits off the abuse and exploitation of the most vulnerable. But the plays’ attempt to link this to the broader historical context feels half hearted, if barely there at all.
Ultimately, the cast’s performance is brilliant, the costumes and set are great – it’s a good play. But the confused setting and lack of a bigger picture leaves us feeling that there’s something missing from this otherwise good production.