Originally published on Exeunt
As fierce as a lioness protecting her cubs, Vassa Zheleznova (Siân Polhill-Thomas) is a formidable leader. Matriarch and self-made millionaire, she employs fellow strong, career-hungry women to ensure that her shipping business runs smoothly. The contrast between these employees and the pliable, weak-minded men that seem to follow in Vassa’s wake is apparent. Her most trusted advisors, Liza (Amelia Donkor) and Anna (Kate Sawyer), hang on her every word, in constant awe of her strategic intellect as if they were the daughters she never had. Except that Vassa has two daughters, Ludamilla (Joss Wyre) and Natalia (Nicole Hartley), as well as an estranged activist for a daughter-in-law. Unfortunately, they are not in the least grateful for Vassa’s mettle and determination to shield them from harm, nor her sizeable economic resources.
Vassa Zheleznova is one of Maxim Gorky’s lesser known (but by no means lesser appreciated) works that explores the pressures of a seemingly invincible female pushed to breaking point by social unrest. The business that she dedicates hours of her life to, at the expense of her children, is on the point of collapse – workers striking, insurgents attempting to destroy her assets and the family name dragged through the mud by the press. Drunken, aggressive Prokhov (Andy McLeod); bigamist Sergei (Luke Shaw); inciteful Melnikov (Christopher Hughes), these are the men set on bringing down that which our protagonist has tirelessly built up. If only Rachel Valentine Smith’s stage realisation carried the tension that sits on its lead character’s shoulders.
Emily Juniper adapts the original script to fit a setting closer to home, transporting the location 2,000 miles from its Russian revolutionary roots to the Liverpool docks. The striking workers are sparsely represented in the first and last moments of the production and don’t connect with the remainder of the play despite providing initial context for Vassa’s worries. The risks in translating issues affecting a historical socialist workforce on to a modern capitalist society are too much for The Faction Theatre Company to overcome – this 21st century approach to classical text is too big a gap for Juniper to close.
Likewise, the familial troubles are updated to reflect topics more pertinent to today. Whether it be a child-molesting husband or an environmental radicalist, Vassa appears to take them in her stride. Her economic status means that money can simply be thrown at the problem until it dissolves in a puddle, the ‘Wicked Witch of the West’ that melts without a trace. Moral standing, rules and repercussions, the Zheleznova family stands above them all. But the lack of effort required to overcome such trifling issues results in 90 minutes of underwhelming subject matter, as if the entire plot is given nothing more than a second thought. The success of this adaptation must now rely entirely on the strength of the actors.
The title character is the linchpin here and Polhill-Thomas is more than capable at holding her own. Her quiet composure and vocal cadence almost too low to hear belie an unmatched ferocity. She fixes her employees with a penetrating cold stare, a Scouse Cersei Lannister that conveys her power in an instant. If it were not for this commanding performance, the play is the theatrical equivalent of a wet blanket. Rachel (Donkor) is just about competent enough to act against Vassa as she attempts to regain custody of her son, the child that Vassa has taken over guardianship of to ensure he grows up in her corporate image. But the other daughters are either entitled or timid, an ineffective contrast with their mother. Likewise the male actors are subdued or overly aggressive, qualities that whilst in keeping with the story are not sufficiently engaging for this production.
Just like its title character, the production has teeth. What Valentine Smith’s direction lacks is bite. The original script offers much, but this version is simply too clipped and remains unsatisfying.
Vassa Zheleznova is on until 9th July 2016. Click here for more information.