The critics have been very positive about this Turgenev play at the Old Vic, but sadly I didn’t share their enthusiasm. A lot of that has to do with the absence of Iain Glen who was sick and, for me anyway, the production was much the poorer without him. Fortune’s Fool is the story of Kuzovkin who for over twenty years has been conducting a lawsuit to win back the property he should have inherited. In the meantime, he has been allowed to live on another estate, but his lowly appearance and jester-like status in the house, has made him a figure of fun, disrespected by both servants and local society in spite of his gentleman status. The play begins with the return of the estate’s heiress, Olga who Kuzovkin knew as a child, with her new husband, and the revelations pour out when Kuzovkin is tricked into getting drunk by a malicious neighbour.
Some of the characters are pretty two dimensional – all of the servants particularly the steward / butler, and Olga’s husband who spent much of the play being bossy and superior, over-ruling his wife’s better knowledge of the house and estate – you can hardly imagine why she married him. Lucy Briggs-Owen was very good as Olga, giving a nicely rounded performance of an intelligent woman eager to recapture the happy memories of her childhood home, and managing the shocks that follow considerably better than the men around her. Richard McCabe too was very funny as the flamboyant, yet spiteful neighbour Tropatchov whose sense of his own local importance allows him to behave appallingly to the new arrivals without caring for the consequences.
I appreciate that it’s not easy to have to perform as the understudy – the audience are already disappointed that the star you’re replacing isn’t there, and except in a rare few cases, no one’s going to remember a good performance. Unfortunately, in this case, the absence of Iain Glen was glaring. His replacement, spoke the lines like a children’s TV presenter – very loud and without nuance, or the light and shade the role seemed to demand. Kuzovkin had been mocked for twenty years, forced by his penury to live in a half state between servant and gentleman, despised by those around him and holding only to his dreams of winning back his birth-right. In Act One, there needed to be much more of the bitterness and exasperation that would engender, whilst in Act Two, more emotional engagement in his scenes with Olga. This lacked Iain Glen’s gravitas and subtlety, which unfortunately made it far less engaging, and sadly he won’t be returning. It’s certainly a lesser production for his absence.
Russian drama isn’t an easy thing to watch; you often end up wondering what it was all about. Characters meet, talk a lot, repress their emotions and life goes on largely as before; realistic perhaps, but sometimes dramatically unsatisfying. The audience around me seemed to like it a lot, and the critics certainly did, but I thought it was fairly average – not great, not bad, just ok.
Fortune’s Fool is at the Old Vic until 22 February, tickets start at £11