Tis’ the season for plays about strong, matriarchal women, and Vassa presents London audiences an alternative to the powerful, caring mother.
Based on Maxim Gorky’s 1910 play, Vassa has been somewhat hilariously adapted by Mike Bartlett (Albion, George III, Doctor Foster). It’s now ripe for the 21st century, with plenty of swearing and well-timed one-liners.
Three branches of the same family live together under one roof, waiting for their father to die so they can get their inheritance. At first glance, it’s a parlour-room drama, but from the first tautly delivered line, it becomes much more than that: a play where roles have been reversed.
Vassa, the 60-year-old matriarch, controls the purse strings while her layabout sons wait for her to give them what they feel is rightfully theirs. It’s one of those plays where you dislike everybody and can feel at times as though no-one has redeeming features. Even the characters you ease into at the start of the play, like Kayla Meikle’s placid and initially kind-seeming Natalya, is revealed to have hidden intentions for wanting a slice of the pie.
Vassa makes a change from the myriad of plays currently showing positive interpretations of strong women. In it, Vassa is revealed to be a manipulative bully, and we see Siobhan Redmond’s character for what she really is – someone who wants to protect her family at any cost. In rewriting it, Bartlett could have made Vassa a stronger, more evil woman. Instead, she’s seen to be obsessed by grandchildren, suggesting that, while on the surface she is a capable businesswoman, all she really wants (like all women, it’s implied) is just to enlarge her family.
The set, designed by Fly Davis, is a maze of wooden doors all leading into Vassa’s study. It’s a clever idea, as it embodies the idea of a skulking household where there’s little privacy from the ears and eyes of servants and family members. The constant eavesdropping is exhausting and the lack of a quiet space to really think contributes to the frenetic aggression. Every conversation turns into an argument and each line is delivered with either malice or tired resignation that this is life now.
Redmond delivers Vassa’s lines tightly and well. Describing her son’s failing marriage she states, bluntly, that: “there’s an aesthetic difference between you two.” Cyril Nye plays Mikhailo, Vassa’s admirer. He is bloodthirsty and underhand, constantly trying to come up with ways to topple others who may stand in the way of Vassa’s fortune. “Men like that…die suddenly…” he says when referring to how to remove one of the ‘problem people’.
Leaving the theatre, the one thing that was on the audiences’ lips was “why now?” Theatreland is crammed with theatre that teaches, shows and presents new ideas and new arguments. Vassa feels like a pleasant-enough way to spend an evening, but I was left wondering why The Almeida had chosen Vassa to follow such a brilliant and strong season.
Vassa runs at the Almeida until November 23.
Words by Eleanor Ross.
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