When it comes to scenes that upset and enrage me, nothing comes close to bullying. With Mike Bartlett’s Bull, I thought I had the winner for most disturbing scene of the year. But Fortune’s Fool, written almost 200 years ago, proves stiff competition. At the Old Vic website, Ivan Turgenev’s play, adapted by Mike Poulton, is described as “savagely funny”. I am not sure it is. It’s more interesting than that.
A country estate in rural Russia prepares for the arrival of a newlywed couple, the mistress of the house and her husband. As servants are busy, Kuzovkin is not. A gentleman fallen on hard times, he lives in the house out of charity. The arrival of the couple and a visit by Tropatchov, a wealthy neighbour with an agenda of his own, reveal secrets, cruelty and empty aspirations. If it wasn’t 19th century Russia, it could have been start of the 21st century anywhere in the world. The gap between those who accumulate wealth and those who fall through the cracks is so vast the two groups start resembling masters and their pets. Human dignity is the first casualty.
Iain Glen is an interesting choice for the role of Kuzovkin. Physically imposing and handsome, it’s not the natural choice for someone down on his luck, which only makes his fate even more shocking. He implodes physically, his legs buckling with resignation and despair. It’s an uncompromising performance, often difficult to watch. And look out for his first entrance, an unforgettable theatrical moment.
My first thought upon seeing Richard McCabe as Tropatchov was that he reminded me of Simon Russell Beale in London Assurance (only with more extravagant hair). Intended or not, this is a misdirection. Tropatchov proves to be casually cruel, someone who inflicts indignities just because he can. McCabe has a way of taking up space, physically but more so mentally. For a long section in the middle of the play, his thoughts invade every corner of the story like poisonous gas.
Alexander Vlahos assuredly conveys the arrogance and certainty of youth. Lucy Briggs-Owen projects innocence that turns a darker shade as feelings of suffocation leak into the story. Richard Henders cuts a distinct and important figure as Karpatchov. He starts as the tormented, in a brilliantly staged and explosive scene, he becomes the tormentor, only to find a measure of strength, dignity and touching regret.
Set design by William Dudley and lighting by Bruno Poet have a pleasing richness but also an illusory quality: a row of door frames adds a sense of depth but also creates a maze-like perspective, an Alice in the Wonderland feel (with Tropatchov dressing and behaving as a cross between the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat).
Staging a 19th century play at the Old Vic seems a safe move. And for all outward signs, Lucy Bailey’s production looks traditional. But despite the laughs (and there were a few) I left the theatre unnerved. Human cruelty and social injustice were laid uncompromisingly bare, and not as a thing of the past. The joke is on us.