Reviews West End & Central Published 19 December 2013

Fortune’s Fool

Old Vic ⋄ 6th December 2013 - 22nd February 2014

Triumph and tragedy.

Tom Wicker

Director Lucy Bailey debuts in style at the Old Vic with this elegant and well-acted staging of an early play by Russian writer Ivan Turgenev. Re-assembling much of the team behind the success of Bailey’s Uncle Vanya at The Print Room – including leading man Iain Glen – it goes a long way to removing the mark left by the theatre’s previous Much Ado misfire.

Bailey and Glen are clearly a great combination when it comes to nineteenth-century Russian plays. Directed badly, his character – impoverished nobleman Kuzovkin – could be little more than laughable in the first act and wildly melodramatic in the second. But Glen’s shabby aristocrat, his bewildered expression etched with the stubborn vestiges of self-respect, feels real. His juddering mix of shambolic dignity and raw pain sees the play bite hard, particularly in its most bitterly comic moments.

Kuzovkin, embroiled in an endless court case over his own property, has lived as a permanent guest in a vast estate in the Russian countryside for more than 30 years – frequently cruelly treated as little more than a court jester by his now dead former master. With the return of heiress Olga (a warmly sympathetic Lucy Briggs-Owen) and her new husband Yeletsy (Alexander Vlahos), he is fearful for what the future holds. And his malicious neighbour Tropatchov (Richard McCabe), affronted by his poverty, is determined to get rid of him – and have fun doing it.

This is the first West End showing for Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Fortune’s Fool, which won two Tony awards when it appeared on Broadway in 2002. It’s not difficult to understand why. As with his other adaptations of classic works, Poulton’s script is humane and unaffected, digging into Turgenev’s writing to uncover his anger at the social politics of early nineteenth-century rural Russian life. As Vlahos’ purse-lipped and tightly wound Yeletsy carefully establishes the value of his new home, there’s little measure for kindness. Without property, a man is nothing.

William Dudley’s forced perspective set elegantly brings this home, with high doorways that seem to repeat into infinity as a stream of servants busy themselves in the background and eavesdrop on conversations. The house is everything and everywhere – socially exclusive but allowing for no existence beyond its walls. As Kuzovkin unfolds himself from the linen cupboard where he’s been sleeping, it’s immediately obvious that he’s a part of the estate’s incremental history but also in the way. Society has rendered him painfully superfluous.

This is something the poisonous Tropatchov, a would-be flaneur with a spiteful quiff and a lackey to trail around after him, knows and relishes with glee. A superb McCabe enters like a powdered whirlwind of snobbish bon mots and proceeds to play with Kuzovkin like a child pulling the legs off a fly. He may be flamboyant but he’s far from harmless. The cold-hearted calculation with which he goads his victim into getting drunk before ridiculing every aspect of his life rends comedy into tragedy in an instance.

Bailey deftly lifts the long speeches that underpin this and a mirroring scene in the second act – in which Kuzovkin reveals to Briggs-Owen’s stunned Olga just how connected they are – and gives them shape, shade and texture. What could be static is turned into fluid motion. Sometimes this swallows up moments that would benefit from a pause. But as it ends on a satisfyingly ambiguous note of triumph and tragedy, Fortune’s Fool hits you where it counts.


Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

Fortune’s Fool Show Info

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Written by Ivan Turgenev, adapted by Mike Poulton

Cast includes Iain Glen, Richard McCabe, Alexander Vlahos, Lucy Briggs-Owen, Dyfan Dwyfor, Janet Fullerlove, Paul Ham, Richard Henders, Simon Markey.


Running Time 2 hrs 20 mins (including interval).



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