Mike Bartlett’s updated version of Maxim Gorky’s play, Vassa, opens on two scurrying maids preparing breakfast to the soundtrack of the patriarch hacking and wheezing upstairs. His family waits for him to cough his last cough but the wrestle for inheritance has already begun. In this family, no holds are barred.
About half way through Act 3 the eponymous Vassa (an imperious Siohban Redmond) stands centre stage. Her daughter looks at her in disbelief as the extent of Vassa’s violent scheming, remorseless plotting and cutthroat blackmailing becomes plain. Vassa, like Don Corleone at his most ruthless, shrugs off her sins: ‘whatever it takes to protect your flesh and blood’. But for all their similarities, there is a major difference between her and the mafia boss: when he says he’d do anything for his family, his words ring true.
With the possible exception of Anna, Vassa actively holds her family in contempt. Her sons, Pavel (neuroses personified by Arthur Hughes) and Semyon (an amusingly dense Danny Kirrane) spend the majority of the play on the receiving end of loveless lashes from Vassa’s tongue. Even her favourite, Anna (Amber James in a curt and impressive mood), is not immune from her mother’s machinations. In Gorky’s critique of capitalism, having dirt on your family members is the currency, and my god do these characters know how to spend it.
The all out warfare that embroils the family thereafter does provide moments of comic brilliance. Fly Davis’s set, a shoebox with many doors, invokes suggestions of farce that are matched in Bartlett’s script. The more successful humour hinges on untimely entrances and overheard insults. Too often though, Bartlett resorts to run-of-the-mill ‘fat bashing’ and putdowns about Pavel’s disability. There is such a glut of these jokes that the sharper ones lose their sting and the rest would have been better left with Gorky in the twentieth century. The success of these comic elements is absolutely vital for the functioning of this play. The characters are so unstintingly repellent that, if the laughter ever dries up, the audience is left wondering who or what they are supposed to be rooting for.
Tinuke Craig’s production is, on the whole, neat. She positions offstage characters lurking around the edge of the scene to summon a mood of paranoia and espionage. On her set there is nowhere to hide. In Act 3, bouquets of commemorative flowers cover the floor and revitalise a set that is otherwise unchanging. However, the value of the visual metaphor - children trampling on their father’s memory - is quickly drowned out by the irritating sound of rustling plastic.
In a play that purports to critique capitalism, it is perhaps unsurprising that the primary casualties of the events are the maidservants. Daniella Isaacs provides one of the few moments of real emotional poignancy as the misused Dunyechka. However the political ambitions of the play are dimmed by the geographical and temporal vagueness of Craig’s production. The script maintains elements of the original Russian and we are told it is set ‘before a revolution’ but in truth, it is difficult to imagine a society beyond Vassa’s desk. You sense that the production seeks to deliver a message that transcends time and place but occasionally it feels like it is neither here nor there.