Vassa: A Russian Family Farce At Almeida Theatre
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Vassa opens with a subtitle projected onto a strip of wood: 'capitalism is showing its age, Act 1.' A cinematic score adds to the impression of early 20th century as the curtain unfolds to reveal a large room with multiple doors and office furniture in shades of Bakelite grey. Together it shouts 'we’re in the age of pre-revolutionary Russia', examining historical transitions to echo our own.
As soon as Vassa Zheleznova, played imperiously by Siobhán Redmond, strolls onto stage, though, this is less Cherry Orchard lament for the loss of a way of life and more French-farce with political teeth. Her family are at war over the prospect of an inheritance, and she with them. The servants are shouted at, used in their games, even kicked, slapped and driven to suicide. There is infidelity, poisoning and deceit aplenty. And that’s when the children are getting on.
Though the inheritance plot is as flat as each character, so many doors revolving keeps the action moving, and we’re treated to a good line now and then. You could imagine Trump or Johnson, instead of Vassa, saying ‘children make laws; adults make deals.’ Arthur Hughes as the disabled Pavel is fantastic as the ill-treated son, and if his mother and wife’s (played by Fresh Meat’s Sophie Wu) cruel references to his disability are painful, it does deepen our feelings for him at least.
Because that is where the play doesn’t quite work. It’s not really funny enough to ignore the stock plot and not deranged enough (think Joe Orton) to undo its farcical conventions. However, though the political context is weak, in its myopic, desperate self-obsession, Vassa’s family wars might contain a lesson for our time as much as writer Maxim Gorky's.
Vassa, Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, N1 1TA. Tickets £10-£42.50, until 23 November 2019.
Last Updated 22 October 2019