Vassa at Almeida Theatre
“Unhappy people can be terribly mean.”
One of the main reasons Jesse Armstrong’s HBO show Succession works so well is that it ensures its viperous, monstrously selfish Roy family is horrendously funny when behaving, well, horrendously. Something like Mike Bartlett’s new version of Maxim Gorky’s Vassa shows just how difficult that is to pull off.
There is plenty of crossover between the TV hit and the Almeida’s latest production. Both focus on family dynasties and crumbling industries, filtered through the life-warping pull a matriarch or patriarch has on their children. In Gorky’s play the titular Vassa (Siobhán Redmond) is waiting for her husband to die, paranoid about prying ears and the vultures coming home to circle the soon-to-be corpse.
Every decision she makes is designed to exert and maintain maximum control, inspiring fear in her offspring and their partners to ensure they remain on their leashes. There are her sons Semyon (Danny Kirane) and Pavel (Arthur Hughes), both petulant in their own ways; daughters-in-law Natalya (Kayla Meikle) and Lyudmila (Sophie Wu), of various loyalties; and returning daughter Anna (Amber James), who just might be her match. Throw in the libidinous, bitter Prokhor (Michael Gould), useless confidante Mikhail (Cyril Nri) and moral maid Lipa (Alexandra Dowling), and the head of the house has her hands full. In other words, all very Roy.
But where Succession’s cruelty is clever and rooted in that show’s fantastic, richly developed performances, here the attempts at similarly scathing dialogue and equally nasty characters come across as charmless, grating and irritatingly one-note. The humour is too often cheap, falling back on jokes about weight or appearance; no strand of the messy plot is particularly interesting; and Redmond seems miscast as the domineering Vassa, never convincingly pulling off the smothering mother’s venomous tongue.
Confined to one wood-panelled room, Tinuke Craig’s production is also boring visually. The constant opening and closing of doors on every side is presumably meant to create the feeling of familial surveillance and ever-churning plot hijinks, only to be contrasted with the suffocating boredom of the wake in the second half. Instead it is a disappointment that we never leave the dull space of the office.
Something like Succession – timely, relatively accessible, and far cheaper than a ticket to the Almeida – is exactly what theatre is up against. Here theatre has fallen far, far short.
Photos: Marc Brenner
Vassa is at Almeida Theatre from 9th October until 23rd November 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.