Almeida Theatre, London – until 23 November 2019
The set for Vassa, designed by Fly Davis, is a wood-panelled room, windowless but with five doors. When a door is open, characters often loiter outside. When they are closed there seems to be a constant stream of exits and entrances – and more than one huffed slam.
In a farce, they would be used for comic effect and someone, no doubt, would end up with one slammed in their face. But Vassa, adapted from Maxim Gorky’s original by Mike Bartlett, is a pitch-black comedy rather than a farce, so pitch black that you struggle to see where the laughs are.
The titular character is a matriarch and running the family business, played with gusto by Siobhan Redmond who was a late addition after Samantha Bond had to withdraw with a back injury.
Her philandering husband is dying upstairs, her alcoholic brother-in-law is trying to take his money out of the business, her wastrel, whinging sons want their inheritance and her daughter has returned home to help but only for something in return.
Vassa uses a combination of brutal bullying and vicious manipulation which could be read ‘tough love’ of a fiercely protective mother except there is little warmth in her personality and it seems to be self-serving. In fact, some of what she does is utterly despicable and remorselessly carried out to the point of tragedy.
The metaphor for the corrupting influence and obsession with money is obvious – we are told at the start, the play is set before a revolution and that ‘Capitalism is showing its age’. There are hints that class barriers are breaking down, the family no longer get the deference they feel their class and status deserve from the locals.
Given how brutally they treat their servants’, that revolution can’t come soon enough but instead, the focus is on the family revolt (or revolting family).
A feminist message?
Vassa is striving in a male-dominated world that is crumbling around her. She talks about how the Virgin Mary would understand her motives but you can’t wring a feminist message from this story.
After all, she forces her female servants to give sexual favours to business associates and even her son.
And that’s the problem with the play, it is so brutal and so cruel it is difficult to laugh – and I’m a fan of black comedies.
Instead, you get a collection of wholly unlikeable characters, none of whom you can root for or care about and an extended metaphor for the dark side of capitalism.
I’m giving Vassa ⭐️⭐️⭐️. It is two hours and 5 minutes including an interval and is at the Almeida until 23 November.
You might also like to read:
West End review: A Day In The Death of Joe Egg, Trafalgar Studios until 30 Nov ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
West End review: The Man in the White Suit, Wyndhams Theatre until 11 Jan ⭐️⭐️⭐️