Saturday, 18 June 2016

Review Vassa Zheleznova

Vassa Zheleznova
by Maxim Gorky
in a new version by Emily Juniper


TLT still thinks fondly of The Onedin Line, the Liverpool-based shipping saga on the BBC in the 1970s, originally envisaged as a contemporary tale but eventually transposed to the nineteenth century when the creator found shipping companies at the time to be run by anonymous corporate boards instead of dynamic entrepreneurs.

TLT's own landlocked hatchback sailboat  also gives a gentle reminder how we relished greatly the cheesily enjoyable Onassis which still managed to elegantly illustrate dramatically networks of oil pipelines.

Playwright and artist Emily Juniper has now adapted Maxim Gorky's play Vassa Zheleznova, with the eponymous  matriarch (played by Siân Polhill-Thomas) ruling a 1990s' Liverpool shipping dynasty.  

She married into the family after being seduced when an underage groupie by her husband Sergei (Luke Shaw), who had briefly found fame as a rock star.  Now, in the midst of the 1995 Liverpool dockers' strike, Vassa desperately attempts to hold business and family together after the death, in which she has a hand, of her criminally depraved and publicly shamed husband.

Maxim Gorky based Vassa on real-life pre Russian Revolution upper class female shipping magnates. In his play she presides over a family losing its grip on power amidst blackmail, murder and child molestation.

The Liverpool dockers' strike, which had international ramifications, was actually about a privatised dock company (albeit with a substantial government shareholding)  and the sacking of hundreds of dockers for secondary picketing rather than involving a family-owned business. Juniper makes an interesting attempt to fuse state, local government, unions and political factions into one woman and her family which doesn't quite come off.

Vassa Zheleznova is played out in the smaller black box Southwark Playhouse studio on a modular stage which is unclipped and shifted during the 90 minutes' running time. Vassa sits in her office silently smoking, echoing the famous low down and dirty image of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Around her, on the docks, the dockers in sou'westers man the picket lines, their undefined mutterings possibly also the sound of radio messages on global marine highways.

So far, so good but the production as the story gets underway is marred, especially at the start, with some characters' voices dropping (too much like film acting!) and the meeting point of Scouse accent and audibility not always found. We were sitting in the third row and occasionally the sightlines were poor, causing us to miss some vital moments.  

The story itself is strong and the melding of Liverpool with the Russian named characters gives an international flavour. But, having determined to follow an overblown (in the best sense of the word), soap opera/thriller style, the production seems to lose the courage of its convictions.

What could be, at least at first before descending into mayhem and pathos, a carnival of fascinating and witty grotesques living a shameless monied existence never lives up to its potential. 

Polhill-Thomas as the eponymous anti-heroine who shoots seagulls for fun does what she can but her repartee lacks the necessary demonic wit to fascinate us. There's good work from Andy McLeod as Vassa's dissolute army veteran brother, also once part of Sergei's rock combo, who dreams drunkenly of a come-back. Equally so from Christopher Hughes, as a double-dealing company spy (reflecting real-life infiltration of the Liverpool dockers) and boyfriend of the public school dropout daughter Natalia played by Nicole Hartley. 

Amelia Donkor also impresses in her doubling as the sexually harassed office junior Lisa and Rachel, environmental activists' leader (again weaving in neatly a real-life situation) and Vassa's daughter-in-law. As Anna, Kate Sawyer is the recognisably sensible personal assistant in a world gone wrong, while Joss Wyre is the second daughter with fey idealistic notions.

So the concept is terrific, the clumsy execution less so.  There are highlights, particularly a tableau near the end when director Rachel Valentine-Smith brings the circle of corruption and vulnerability into visual focus. So, those times of insight and the general concept  of this adaptation just about gain the production an amber light.   

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