December 17, 2013 5:46 pm

Fortune’s Fool, The Old Vic, London – review

Mike Poulton’s version of Turgenev’s early drama is not exactly brimming with seasonal cheer
Richard McCabe (top) and Iain Glen in 'Fortune's Fool'©Alastair Muir

Richard McCabe (top) and Iain Glen in 'Fortune's Fool'

It is a strange December in theatrical London: not only are there an unusual number of “straight”, non-seasonal shows opening, but a number of those shows have a distinctly un-Christmassy unpleasantness at their core. To The Duck House and American Psycho we can now add this revival of Mike Poulton’s excellent but nigh-unbearable version of an early drama by Turgenev (also known as The Hanger-On).

Kuzovkin is a gentleman fallen on hard times who has lived (and slept in the linen cupboard) in the Petrov household for 30-odd years, kept on by the now-deceased householder as a kind of fool. When the daughter of the house returns after several years’ absence with her new husband, Kuzovkin is first plied with drink at dinner by a malicious visiting neighbour and then agonisingly humiliated, at which point he blurts out a secret that throws the household into chaos. The second act follows the husband’s attempts to buy back the fateful words, and Kuzovkin’s own conflicts between his integrity, his ancient family home and his beloved Olga Petrovna.


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I have always found something deeply suspect about works that affirm particular values only by first thoroughly and loathsomely indulging their opposites. Obviously we need to sympathise with Kuzovkin’s grace under pressure, but there seems to be a worrying authorial, and spectatorial, delight in portraying that pleasure to the point of exquisite pain.

This is in no small part due to a pair of magnificent central performances. I have not always been enraptured by Iain Glen, but here he is utterly magnetic, at once dignified and embarrassingly diffident as Kuzovkin. His lengthy, sozzled account of a complicated legal case is a virtuoso piece in itself and makes the required transition from entertaining absurdity to grotesque torture. Applying the red-hot irons is Richard McCabe, an actor who relishes characters at once playful and odious and who on that score may have the role of a lifetime in Tropatchov, an “infamous, fatuous windbag” without a benevolent bone in his sleek, overdressed body.

Lucy Bailey’s production is fluent and disciplined, but the drama seems to be driven by the malice rather than the countervailing scruple. And isn’t there something questionable in itself in a production which asks us, at this social and economic moment, to endorse the notion that being revealed as the daughter of a poor man is an unbearable calumny?

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