Review: Fortune's Fool

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 31 January 2014 in Culture
Anoosh Chakelian is a fool for Turgenev’s satire Fortune’s Fool at the Old Vic

Presenting sad clowns and moneyed malcontents, a troublesome estate and class-based torment, Ivan Turgenev’s 1848 play Fortune’s Fool serves up a vintage feast of Russian rumination, despite it being one of the playwright’s lesser-known works.

It’s directed to sparkle with cruelty and irony in equal measure by Lucy Bailey, and the production’s array of alarming characters is key to its success. Iain Glen is the erstwhile estate jester, Kuzovkin, a fallen gentleman and linen cupboard resident, who is incessantly humiliated by grandiloquent fop Tropatchov (a darkly camp Richard McCabe).

The interaction between these peculiar men climaxes devastatingly at a (predominantly liquid) lunch that closes the first act. Tropatchov, fired up by entitlement and champagne, yanks Kuzovkin back down to his place as court fool. Duly, the latter begins to perform, becoming increasingly drunk, and shocks the room with a revelation about Olga, one half of the newlywed couple who have that very day arrived to live on their estate.

Olga is a refreshingly strong, hard-headed character in this cavalcade of oddities, played with assurance by Lucy Briggs-Owen. “Oh, stop bowing,” she snaps. She eschews sentiment, eavesdrops adroitly and defies the orders of her insipid husband Pyotr (Dyfan Dwyfor).

An unexpectedly nuanced second act follows, leading to a muted conclusion that leaves this study of rural Russian society with a powerful message. Class is cruel, and so-called ‘gentlemen’ can be anything but gentle. The abuse of those who have slipped from social standing – Kuzovkin’s torment is mirrored by Tropatchov’s own right-hand-fool, who he sneeringly refers to as “Little Fish” – is an odd but compelling focus for such satire.

Stalwart theatre translator Mike Poulton has punched life into this almost forgotten piece with a simultaneously hilarious and harrowing adaptation. Perhaps reviving such an obscure piece was a bit of a punt for the Old Vic, but clearly in this case, fortune favours the fool.

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