The most frustrating thing about Vassa is that it’s a missed opportunity.
Mike Bartlett’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s 1910 play has the potential to be ragingly political and utterly contemporary – a play about how capitalist structures infiltrate and corrupt the sacred family unit? Sounds great. Bang on the money, so to speak. Other reviewers have made the comparison to Succession – surely the god-tier example of rich people squabbling over power and money, being unbearably cruel to each other and those around/under them, all while the world circles further down the toilet bowl. The plots are similar – a patriarch lies dying in the upstairs room, while the imperious matriarch is surrounded by family members and lackeys, all begging for a piece of that sweet, sweet inheritance. That is, unfortunately, where the comparisons end.
There are a lot of things going on with Vassa. Firstly, it’s a show that is going to grow (somewhat) into itself throughout its run. Some of the kinks are going to get smoothed out, just by virtue of being performed night after night. But not all. Certain moments can feel a little like watching a stagger-through – not enormously surprising, considering that Siobhan Redmond was drafted in only a few weeks ago after Samantha Bond’s injury-related departure. You can see how hard the cast is working – it’s evident that they’re doing a hell of a lot of heavy-lifting. Fly Davis’s office design, with flimsy walls and doors which resemble stage flats – indicating the performativity of the whole ordeal – is the kind of anonymously bland chic that super rich people enjoy.
The hexagonal honeycomb lighting fixtures suggest a hive of activity, and Tinuke Craig’s production appropriately has doors slamming open and closed as family members run into Vassa’s office to make pathetic, unfulfilled demands. It’s all clearly intended to be farcical. But farces need to be speedy and precisely timed. It all feels a bit sluggish, never reaching the dizzying, hectic heights that it needs. It lags, like a stream interrupted by a jagged rock. Craig bookends each act with delightfully frilly orchestral music, setting up a precedent of OTT shenanigans which never fully follows through. The cast drift over the stage, seemingly unmoored and unsure. They don’t feel like they’ve been appropriately modulated – Cyril Nri’s Mikhailo, all wide eyes, gurning smile and sycophantic syllables, seems to have come from completely different planet to Kayla Meikle’s (so, so good in Dance Nation and a saving grace here, though with not nearly enough stage time) dignified, long-suffering Natalya.
So, Bartlett’s adaptation is almost a farce, but not quite. It’s also almost a family tragedy, but not quite. And it’s also almost a political satire, but not quite. It never commits fully to any genre, nor bridges the gaps between the three to fuse them into something bigger and better. This could’ve been a thrilling thing to present to a white wine-swilling Islington audience – and I do think that was the initial intention – but the jokes are flat and listless, never as sharp as they should be. It’s a black comedy which should cut right to the heart of the core Almeida demographic, but it doesn’t land the blows. It lets the audience get away without a single scratch. And, more egregiously, there’s a sprinkling of fat jokes and disabled jokes, which, if I’m being generous, might be attempting to be self-aware and satirical, but which in actuality just don’t land right, or get satisfyingly unpicked. Instead, they just feel mean-spirited, chucked in for a lazy laugh
The most horrific moment [SPOILER AHEAD], however, comes at the end of the second act. This completely odious family bully their servant Lipa (a winsome, dignified Alexandra Dowling in an unforgiving role) until she commits suicide. One of Fly Davis’s doors swings open and a body drops and swings silently from the rafters. Here’s the human cost, Craig and Bartlett seem to say. This is what all the awful squabbling and rampant capitalist attitudes amount to. A dead body. Look. But they haven’t earned a shock moment of that magnitude. It feels like a cheap trick. It’s strange – your body instinctively reacts to it, because of course it does – it’s a body hanging from a noose and it all happens suddenly. Of course you gasp, of course your vision narrows. But it’s not fair.
One of my notes reads “Class war?? When??” Before the first act, a projection tells us that this all takes place “before a revolution.” It can’t come soon enough.
Vassa is on at the Almeida Theatre until 23rd November 2019. More info and tickets here.