Vassa Zheleznova at Southwark Playhouse
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy’s words could not be truer for the Zheleznovas. During a strike that puts their business at risk, the family itself crumbles amidst scandal and violence. Newly adapted by Emily Juniper, Maxim Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova is brought into the Liverpool of the 1990s and shows that this family is indeed unhappy in very much its own way.
As head of business and household, matriarch Vassa is faced with a new challenge every day. Whether this is keeping her workplace together or trying to fix her family’s problems, she always remains cool and calculated. When her husband is charged with a felony involving a minor, she simply urges him to kill himself in order to protect the family’s honour. Her daughters love and hate Vassa for her power and control, yet have to acknowledge that, in the end, the family does revolve around her. This is also clearly reflected in the setting of the play, as all of the action transpires in Vassa’s office, the place where all the Zheleznovas always seems to gather.
The first act is not as well executed as it could be: the viewers are thrown into the centre of the action right away and have to decipher the hubbub of characters on stage by themselves. The main relationships are not explained and principal characters are not introduced. But more frustratingly, the pressure points of the play — the strike and the accusations against the husband — are only revealed gradually, though they are referenced throughout. It is also this unfortunate exposé that makes the acting feel a bit clumsy at points, as the reactions of the characters cannot be fully comprehended by the uninformed audience.
The Faction ensemble’s translation of this 19th century classic into modern day Liverpool is nonetheless seamless: apart from the character’s names, one hardly notices that there was a predecessor to this version that is performed at the Southwark Playhouse.
Photo: Ricky J Payne
Vassa Zheleznova is on at Southwark Playhouse from 15th June until 9th July 2016, for further information or to book visit here.