Together with director Tinuke Craig, he’s created something intriguing and strange, if unsatisfying.
Vassa (Siobhan Redmond) is holding her merchant family together while her husband slowly dies. Everyone – her two sons, her daughter, her brother-in-law and all the respective spouses – can sniff the money that will be released when he dies. They all want to take their share, which would ruin the business and destroy the family. That leaves a big question for the ruthless Vassa: is family or the business more important?
There have been a couple of cast changes since the run was announced due to injury, and the strain this has placed on the production shows; some of the timing is off, and things don’t quite hang together – hopefully that will all settle as the run progresses.
More insolubly, it feels like this is a production at odds with its text. There’s savage humour and serious messages both on the page and the stage, but not in the same places.
Bartlett has pulled some great characters out of Gorky’s play, like the awful, whining, useless children and their hangers-on, twisting them all slightly. He evokes the stresses and strains that exist between them. This is what happens when a family adopts capitalist principles in its blood.
The constant clicking of opening and closing doors, the eavesdropping and the adultery all suggest farce, but errant timing and a much more serious, even sinister, strand work against that. One minute Redmond’s Vassa seems like she’s just putting on a stern front – a parent you can talk round if you know how – the next she’s simply horrible.
Only when Amber James’ Anna comes in, the prodigal daughter with all her mother’s instincts for business and savagery, does the production begin to mesh. James’ inscrutable face make her both a confessor for all the other characters – they naturally confide in her – and the most morally ambiguous of the lot.
There’s a palpable imbalance to things. Sometimes the actors deadpan and sometimes they ramp up their grotesquery, but there’s never a clear reason why they’re doing either.
Craig’s production is often very good. It has this strange, offbeat tone that nods to the work of Yorgos Lanthimos and Wes Anderson, especially in the beautiful stage pictures and the use of weirdness for weirdness’ sake. But the balance between the comically villainous and outright monstrous doesn’t quite come off.
It’s clear what Bartlett and Craig are trying to do here, and it feels as if a stunning production lurks not far beneath this one’s messy surface. It just needs to break through.