Mike Bartlett’s new adaptation of Vassa by Russian playwright Maxime Gorky is an interesting timely work. Set before the Russian revolution (though place and time are not stated), the play wants to be a depiction of the general social and political struggle of the time, although with a funnier twist through the representation of the family-driven profit dynamics. Vassa Zheleznov is the self-obsessed domineering mother desperately trying to save the family business. She despises her sons, attempts to kill her brother-in-law to ensure the full inheritance and, of course, falsifies her husband’s testament which declares she’s the sole expected heir. Siobhan Redmond beautifully explores Vassa’s character with energy, consciously aware of the power her character has over the other characters explicitly expressed by her physical assertiveness.
The performance space, Vassa’s office is fuelled with crude violence, both physical and verbal, resentment and most unexpected cruelty and utter absurdity (what mother would ever mock her children, but all the more important her one disabled child to the point of making him hate her and himself?). Well, apparently this is all left for the audience to judge, since the effort to recognise such atrocity doesn’t seem to be perceived as part of the characters’ day to day reality, or anything ethically right to do. Indeed, Zheleznovs’s powerless and repeatedly discriminated youngest child is subjected to frightening psychological terrorism by almost every member of his family, whose physical passivity and total indifference leave Pavel to crumble into desperation and develop a fair amount of intolerance towards his misogynist uncle Prokhor.
What holds the different (diachronic) moments and the (synchronic) lines together in the stage materials used is the permanent passive-aggressive presence of Vassa’s desk, strategically set centre stage and unconsciously subordinating both the spectator’s mind and the characters’ throughout the performance. Coherence persists by giving every character ownership over the room, although Vassa maintains full control of everything -“You just fucking / love control, don’t you?”- Semyon shouts and everyone’s relationship with their surroundings, leaving no space for anyone to get in her way.
Overall the play makes it very hard to follow on an emotional level, for it is teeming with everything that is wrong with society: lies, lies, and more lies. Everybody is accountable for themselves only and there is nothing left but a broken family with each member stubbornly eager to satisfy his/her own interests to the point of hurting each other. Too much of secretly listening to “private” conversations behind closed doors and talking over one another without making the smallest effort to hear and, ultimately, be heard. Here, the idea of “business as usual” can make its way only at the expense of the family welfare, and all that remains are the debris of annihilated dreams in the form of a folded piece of paper, in this case hiding Semyion’s only aspiration to one day opening a Jewellery shop - “I’m very proud of the name actually. Nathalya and I spent hours on it” – and desires, with Pavel and his quest for love and acceptance from his relatives.
Despite some funny moments, the play is not so joyful, for it depicts delicate issues such as mental health and violence against women and raise questions about the nature of these two and their causes. But, unfortunately, Tinuke Craig’s production offers a dramaturgy specifically designed to detach the spectator’s eye from such problems and instead focus on the matriarchal power.