Fortune's Fool

Anyone who’s succumbed to the some of the more ‘sparkling’ pleasures of the workplace Christmas party may find a bubble or two of familiarity in the central themes of Ivan Turgenev’s 1857 tale, Fortune’s Fool.

While the setting may not be the dancefloor four doors down from the office, intoxicated confessions and questionable judgements are rife in this satirical take on serfdom in nineteenth century Russia. Throughout, Turgenev fails to commit to any one specific target, sowing his level-headed criticism across the plain of the petty Russian elite.

From the opening couple of scenes – where nimble maids fan out sheets and lightly scurry across the domestic set, and bumbling manservants are weighed down by trays ready for a welcoming dinner – the Old Vic’s production serves up Turgenev’s wide-reaching criticism with an abundant spirit. In this new take, adapted by Mike Poulton and directed by Lucy Bailey, humiliation is truly served up as liberally as the champagne.

Radiating the spirit of St Petersburg, ebullient newly-wed Olga Petrovna (Lucy Briggs-Owen) sweeps into her rural childhood home, her husband Pavel Nikolaitch Yeletsky (Alexander Vlahos) closely in tow. She’s been away for seven years but, in many ways, things are just how she left them: lifted dust sheets reveal bright chandeliers and carefully preserved antique furniture, the bookshelves are still heaving with texts that Olga guarantees her shyly officious partner will love and, with his nails clinging on to the very limits of hospitable customs, downtrodden gent Vassily Semyonitch Kuzovkin (Iain Glen) still calls the estate his home – even if he is resigned to living on the top shelf of the linen cupboard.

While Olga accepts Kuzovkin’s presence with a brisk sweetness laced with throwaway insincerity – “How kind of you to be here still!” – other individuals find this tag-along’s habits a little more jarring, and showy neighbouring landowner Flegont Alexandrovitch Tropatchov (Richard McCabe) is particularly offended by his unlikely peer’s claim to a place at Olga and Yeletsky’s dinner table.

McCabe and Glen make a glorious comic duo, furnishing the play’s complex humour that swings from Christmas cracker puns to taunting, psychologically-ambiguous ridicule. With polarised style, the two actors hit opposing corners of the play’s humour. As Tropatchov campaigns to shame and expose Kuzovkin, both men engage in vibrant displays of ostentation that, in very different ways, draw out the telling inconsistencies that lie within their characters.

Kuzovkin, who by his own admittance has “nothing” to his name, attempts to spin a mythical or literary gravitas. With a drunkard’s punchy articulation, he distils an elongated legal saga concerning his dubious claim to land and power. Swaying back and forth with a wine glass, observed with sabotaging generosity by Tropatchov, he crafts a tale of titillatingly hyperbolic complexity. Only after a considerable length of time engaged in a tangled telling does he pause to remark, somewhat belatedly, that “things started to get very complicated”. The tickling lack of self awareness in this un-clocked irony makes it pretty clear who ‘fortune’s fool’ might be.

McCabe brings a brilliantly-inflated charisma to pompous Tropatchov, a character with evident material wealth who could’ve walked straight out the pages of Oscar Wilde. In a splashy crushed velvet jacket and a fringe that seems all set to flee to stage right, Tropatchov silently mocks the imitating dulled clothing and greasy side-parting of his subjugated companion and personal fool “Little Fish” Karpatchov (played like a Verges to Tropatchov’s Dogberry). Using reckless hand gestures, he flings around props and contradiction, aware of his own flamboyance as he proclaims that “my worst nightmare is you’ll find us [country people] all so dull”.

With its twisting taunts, the production exhibits fortune as an astute and just force that turns its blade to favour, in equal measure, both the bold and the humble.

Fortune’s Fool is playing at The Old Vic until Until 22 February 2014. For more information and tickets, see the Old Vic Theatre website.