The Old Vic is back on form with its latest offering, Fortunes Fool by Turgenev, in a version by Mike Poulton. Turgenev (a poor man’s Chekhov in some respects) hasn’t written a brilliant play, but this is easily overlooked with this excellent cast, direction and set.
Fortunes Fool centres around Vassily Semyonitch Kuzovkin, a gentleman who has fallen on hard times (actually as the play progresses one is left wondering if he’s ever known anything else). He has been reduced to sleeping in the top of a linen cupboard situated in a grand house on a large estate, having been employed as the late owner’s resident court jester. It turns out that he has inhabited the house for the past thirty years.
The play opens as the staff bustle around the vast set getting ready for the return of the newly married Olga Petrovna. She has inherited the estate following the death of her father. She and her brand new husband, Pavel Nikolaitch Yeletsky, are about to arrive to take charge. The servants aren’t the only ones excited and curious to see the young couple. We soon realize that Kuzovkin, although apprehensive, can’t wait to be reunited with the young woman, who he adored when she was a child. Meanwhile a close neighbour, is also eager to snoop. He is an unkind, buffoon of a man called Flegont Alexandrovitch Tropatchov and he and his side-kick, Karpatchov, arrive and stay for lunch. It is during this meal, when they ply Kuzovkin with too much wine and then proceed to mercilessly humiliate him, that hidden secrets start to emerge. All is definitely not what it seems.
We view this first act, appalled at the way poor Kuzovkin is treated and discover during the second the consequences of his drunken humiliation and resulting disclosures. Turgenev, in writing this savagely funny play, satirically highlights what was wrong with Russian country life in the mid-nineteenth century and, despite the odd clumsiness, mostly succeeds. This is due in no small measure to everyone connected with this first showing of the play in the West End.
Iain Glen makes a superb Kuzovkin. It is extremely painful to watch this proud man descend drunkenly into disclosing a secret he has kept all these years and uplifting to witness his ascent back to the noble gentleman he has always strived to be. We don’t have to endure maudlin sentimentality. Thanks to Lucy Bailey’s expert direction and Iain Glen’s excellent portrayal, his character is pitched just right.
Likewise Richard McCabe’s Tropatchov. Initially viewed as merely an hilariously absurd fop, we soon realize that this is a man imbued with an extraordinary amount of spiteful malice. He is a detestable character, but Richard McCabe manages to make him humourously fascinating.
There is strong support from the whole cast and, most especially, Lucy Briggs-Owen as Olga Petrovna. The scene between her and Kuzovkin towards the end of Act Two is wonderfully touching.
Mix in William Dudley’s atmospheric, towering set and we’re left with the usual top notch Old Vic, following it’s last little blip.