At home with the Yeletskys: Fortune’s Fool takes up residence at the Old Vic

Saturday 14th December, 2013, matinée (preview)

We are not great fans of the Old Vic and it takes a lot to lure us there these days.  In this case, the chance to see ‘team Uncle Vanya’ reunited after a memorable production at the Print Room was a more than good enough reason – with Lucy Bailey directing Mike Poulton’s adaptation and Iain Glen starring there seemed plenty to see in Ivan Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool.

The plot revolves around the fortune’s fool of the title, Kuzovkin, a gentleman whose fortune is tied up in a protracted court case, forced to live as a semi-permanent house guest of his long deceased host.  With the heiress of the estate about to return with her new husband Yeletsky, will he be able to stay on?  Not if mischievous neighbour Tropatchov has anything to do with it.  Hoping to humiliate Kuzovkin by plying him with drink he paves the way for a shocking revelation which will change his situation forever.

You know there’s something wrong when you are watching a play and the most sympathetic character is a toff who has been freeloading for almost thirty years and never thought of getting a job.  Billed as ‘savagely funny’, the play is sometimes savage, and sometimes funny, but mostly it is neither.  The tone is never quite clear, going from pure farce with the scenes of drunkenness, to melodrama, to an aftermath which is curiously undramatic, full of back story and exposition.  The ending is touching, but not heartbreaking, which is strange given the enormity of what happens.  We can see from this why Turgenev was fêted as a novelist.  There are some interesting themes and characters, and we can imagine them being better served by that form than by drama.

Iain Glen as Kuzovkin is a safe pair of hands.  In some ways his performance suffers by comparison to his outstanding performance as Uncle Vanya.  He brings some of the same qualities to this role, and easily fills the Old Vic stage with passivity (without the aggression in the this case, which is an art in itself), vulnerability, and humour.  He connects with the audience and makes us care about the character.  But here he is let down by the material, and the subtlety of his performance is left suspended without a good enough plot to hang it on.  The set-up is meticulously crafted, but there is no real pay-off.  As interfering neighbour Tropatchov, Richard McCabe delivers the goods, making an enjoyable and amusing hate figure.  Overall though, there are too many characters who seem superfluous – realistic in the sense that this is a grand country house with a large staff and various hangers-on, but not helpful in serving the drama.  As the newly weds, Lucy Briggs-Owen and Alexander Vlachos didn’t quite bring out the complexity of the characters or the sense of torn emotions that would have really brought the drama to life.  But perhaps they too did not have enough to work with.

We can understand the allure of a lesser-known gem to translators and directors, and this really feels like a labour of love.  Skillfully directed by Lucy Bailey and beautifully designed by William Dudley, it is hard to fault the production itself.  There are some brilliant moments, such as the bustling preparations for the young couple’s arrival, and the drunken ramblings of the party scene, but ultimately it feels that something is missing and, frustratingly, the quality of the production only heightens that feeling.

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