FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Tinuke Craig with the brisk pace this satirical snapshot needs, Fly Davis’ design allows the details of 1911 – funeral clothes the piled desk with Imperial decorations and silver to meld with 1970s wooden panelling surrounding the office it takes place in. Joshua Phars’ lighting comes into its own in a few shocking reveals, and Emma Laxton’s sound does evoke mostly Imperial Russia: Rismky-Korsakov’s Sheharazade, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Stravinsky’s Firebird, and Shostakovich’s far later String Quartet No. 8. Jenny Ogilvie’s movement again builds up pyramidal structures at the end of each act.
Mike Bartlett’s way of tightening inexorable traps round his characters echoes the fate of some of Maxim Gorky’s in his 1911 play Vassa Zheleznova – which Bartlett adapts here as Vassa.
The cardinal difference is it’s the eponymous central character tightening the noose. You end up wondering if she’s made it for herself, raising gender stereotypes and the dangerous question of what Gorky meant. Unlike Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsnk District though, there’s neither much sympathy nor obligatory wages of sin. All the better.
Siobhan Redmond – who took over at very short notice from an injured Susan Bond – is chillingly funny as the matriarch keeping a shipping business together as her husband doesn’t hurry up and die. Redmond relishes lines like ‘The law?… have I taught you nothing? Children make laws. Grown-ups make deals.’ You’d think she was Vassa to the death.
Bartlett has two version to play with – Gorky rewrote Vassa Zheleznova far more harshly just before his death in 1936. And Bartlett’s further conflated characters so the very DNA’s altered. But the strength of women over men is triumphantly maintained.
First there’s luckless pretty Lipa, Alexandra Dowling’s abandoned maid, used sexually, forced to do something horrific and then blackmailed. No wonder she’s listening at doorposts, waiting her chance. Vassa continually savages and toys with her. Daniella Isaacs’ more serf-like Dunya might seem more loyal, but you can see her being slid across an imaginary chequered floor as she’s dispatched to business.
Vassa’s brother-in-law Prokhor – a deliciously seedy Michael Gould – hovers drooling over his share of inheritance and the sexy bored wife of one of his nephews-in-law, Sophie Wu’s Lyudmilla; who’s only too willing, when she finally puts in a appearance fatigued by the night’s exertions. Sentimental and savage to her luckless ‘crippled’ husband Pavel, Wu surprises with warmth towards the characters who hurt Lyudmilla most.
And with some male characters there’s more than an element of farce. Despised by at least one of their wives, squashed by their mother, Danny Kirrane’s elder son Semyon and Arthur Hughes’ Pavel are a scream. Which is helpful, since they indulge in it so much themselves.
Kirrane exposes his girth like some brattish trustafarian unable to imagine no-one responds to his charms – except on occasion his wife Kayla Meickle’s Natalya, yet another who’s regarded as ‘fat’ and stupid by Vassa, of no account. When Natalya finally turns on her with others, Vassa has another trick. Meickle’s thankless character simmers and simpers, flashed out and sees far more than her husband, how she might be crushed.
Hughes’ Pavel is a study in mewling adolescent self-pity dilated to being twenty-four and despised. He hurls himself around like a teenager who’s had his outgrown sweets snatched from him by a sadist. It’s a horribly good study of grotesquerie.
What makes this Vassa so remarkable is its pyramidal structure. Vassa’s one ‘true’ child, Anna, Amber Jones’ suave colonel’s wife longing for his demise, is as sharp as her mother but more generous. She willingly hands over letters Prokhor has written to an illegitimate son, and scorns to be paid for them. She alone wins a measure of trust. Despite everything, Lyudmilla too, being smart might be plucked out as a winner, not something to be got rid of. Wu’s curious mix of sexual boredom, savagery and tenderness seems a set of displacements pressured by living near Vassa too long.
But how deal with the rest? There’s a maid to be blackmailed to confuse medicines to an already weakened dissolute, and if that doesn’t work… There’s one man only who Vassa trusts: Cyril Nri’s avuncular Mikhail. His avuncularity is deceptive though. It’s there for some only. Nri neatly plays against type and initial expectation here.
It’s Redmond though who compels attention outside the realms of caricature. Early on, she suddenly hides under the desk, sheltering herself perhaps from herself. Later too, the pathos of her need for love at the end injects a rare Chekhovian pathos as Vassa elicits – and startlingly receives – sympathy from the women she trusts. It could be read as black satire, and in part it is, flecked with misogynistic role-models coming to roost. But it works far more as a desperately needed shaft of tenderness; something of the soul of this play exhales; it’s worth waiting for.
Directed by Tinuke Craig with the brisk pace this satirical snapshot needs, Fly Davis’ design allows the details of 1911 – funeral clothes, the piled desk with Imperial decorations and silver, to meld with 1970s wooden panelling surrounding the office Vassa takes place in. Though costumes quote Imperial Russia they float without identity. And there’s fine details like a carpeting of floral tributes. It’s as if Bartlett’s crisp rendering in all senses allows a timelessness to seep in. Given the dialogue this might suggest itself, but it vitiates the power of Bartlett’s leaving servants and references to an Imperial Russian structure outdoors. One can’t help thinking 1911 would have held more force. Joshua Phars’ lighting comes into its own in a few shocking reveals, and Emma Laxton’s sound really does evoke mostly Imperial Russia: Rismky-Korsakov’s Sheharazade, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Stravinsky’s Firebird, and Shostakovich’s far later String Quartet No. 8. Jenny Ogilvie’s movement again really builds up pyramidal structures at the end of each act. Despite the string quartet it all reinforces period, adding a curious dimension to the set.
A really worthwhile production with a few missed opportunities, it can’t otherwise be faulted – given its adaptation – in directing or above all acting. There are other Vassas, more profound ones perhaps, less 2D. But as a clinically funny, devastating picture of the cost of being a Machiavel, without misogynist consequences, it’s a timely reminder of so many useless men at the top.