Almeida Theatre, London – until 23 November 2019
Guest reviewer: Ben Dowell
What a strange evening this is. Young director Tinuke Craig has taken Maxim Gorky’s 1911 play (there was a revision in 1935 but she has opted for the earlier text) and fashions a strangely free-floating family drama that seems part French farce, part panto, part absurdist horror. It’s certainly discomfiting, but not always in a good way.
At its centre is Vassa herself (Siobhan Redmond), mother to an unruly brew of disaffected, dysfunctional children and a hard-nosed patriarch who is dying upstairs. The business the two built together is also going to pot and Vassa will do anything (and you will see quite what that means) to protect her interests. But what was a timely satire of the iniquities of capitalism in its day doesn’t really have much to say when Craig has so squarely decided to move it so out of time, place and a story of a generic family. It could be anywhere, which seems strange for a play aimed squarely at the horrors of late-stage capitalism before Russia’s glorious 1917 revolution.
So instead of saying much about our world, it is just a clanging, unmodulated mix of registers. Mike Bartlett’s text gives its characters few asides about the stupidity of politicians (and also, on one instance, “fucking theatre” itself) to attract those knowing theatre chuckles we know so well. But mainly this feels redolent of a panto star at the Hackney Empire getting a cheap laugh. The constant comings and goings and door slams (lots of doors in designer Fly Davis’ drab-looking, wood-heavy set) also brings an edge of farce to proceedings. Which feels aimlessly frustrating.
I suppose it could be said that tyrannical parents, shepherding the lives of feckless greedy children egged on by avaricious spouses, can ring true regardless of its time and place. But it’s hard not to think that these themes are more cleverly and stylishly brought out in, say, HBO’s Succession. This just seems unmodulated, relentless and, in the end, rather depressing. It’s as if Craig isn’t fully in command of her material.
And while there are some funny moments, with something grotesquely compelling about Redmond’s portrait of Vassa’s cruelty and curtness, you cannot help wondering what Samantha Bond, who was originally chosen for the part but was forced to back out due to injury, would have made of it.
to 23 Nov