by Ivan Turgenev
Translated and adapted by Mike Poulton
Directed by Lucy Bailey
The Old Vic, London15th February 2014 14.30 matinee
Lucy Briggs-Owen as Olga, newly married and returning to her country estate after seven years away
Alexander Vlahnos as Pavel Yeletsky, her new husband
Patrick Cremin as Vasily Kuzovkin, “Fortune’s Fool” and a dependent gentleman on Olga;s estate the past thirty years (replacing Ian Glen, who features in most reviews and online images)
Richard McCabe as Tropatchkov. the monstrous, bullying neighbour
John McAndrew as Ivanov, old friend and chess partner to Kuzovkin
Richard Henders as Kapatchkov, or “Little Fish” hanger on to Tropatchkov
Daniel Cerqueira as the steward
Dyfan Dwyfor as Pyotr, the footman
We were going to buy tickets for this for any one of three reasons: Directed by Lucy Bailey. Yes! With Richard McCabe, the best Puck ever in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and on great form in A Little Hotel On The Side at Bath last summer. Yes! With Lucy Briggs-Owen, the best Helena ever in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yes! Sadly they were different productions of The Dream and decades apart.
The servants and serfs look on
No one, not even the adaptor is going to say that Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool is a masterpiece. It is a very good play though, a tragi-comedy, and one that Mike Poulton has pulled from obscurity twice and constantly improved upon. This is a five star production and direction, possibly better than the intrinsic play deserves. The stage design by William Dudley deserves every award going. There is incredible depth, rooms beyond rooms, receding to the very back wall of the theatre stage area, the background constantly filled with flitting servants or serfs. The scene where Olga and her new husband arrive transforms it into a garden for two minutes then seamlessly back into country house. The integration of stage design and detailed direction cannot be bettered.
Richard McCabe as Tropatchkov: Act Two set
Richard McCabe’s performance as the monstrous, camp, overbearing neighbour Tropatchkov is a tour de force. Let’s forget all the Vladimir Illyich Shostakovich address modes of old Russia and try to simplify the names, always needed when Russian reference rules. Tropatchkov deservedly gets central billing on the programme and posters, but the alleged central figure is the fool , the aristocratic dependent of the family, thus hanger-on, Kuzovkin. They’re still selling posters at the theatre with Iain Glen’s image on, but he was long ago replaced by Patrick Cremin, rendering many reviews praising Glen redundant. Glen’s absence also renders many online photos (with him) redundant.
Olga & Pavel: the happy couple
The play is unbalanced, giving of its best in the tremendous luncheon scene in Act One where Tropatchkov steamrollers his way in, snatching a flower from the floral display to make a buttonhole, ordering wine, changing seating positions, pawing at the food, squeezing a maidservant’s breast appraisingly. A great creation, a great monster, a great performance. As a result, the serious sudden family revelations by Kuzovkin at the end of Act One (think Festen; August: Osage County where the family secret also comes out at a dining table ) are explored in a more serious Act Two. Kuzovkin has been rendered reckless with drink by a mischief-making, bullying Tropatchkov first.
It’s not good in theatre to put the climax in Act One if you can’t match it in Act Two, and in spite of a tremendous moving performance by Lucy Briggs-Owen, and a perfectly-pitched young aristocratic husband by Alexander Vlahnos, you inevitably miss the sheer affrontery of McCabe’s comic monster. We get some, but not enough, but that’s the play.
In any case, it’s hugely entertaining, brilliantly directed, with towering central performances. We loved every minute of it.