Friday 20 December 2013

Theatre review: Fortune's Fool

I wonder what kind of play Fortune's Fool, currently playing at the Old Vic, is? That's not a rhetorical question, I've just sat through the damn thing and I'm none the wiser. Tragicomedy is obviously what's being aimed for, but what's actually landed on the Old Vic's stage is anybody's guess. After 7 years in St Petersburg, Olga ( Lucy Briggs-Owen) is returning to the country estate she's sole inheritor of. She's bringing her new husband Pavel (Alexander Vlahos) and, this being late Tsarist Russia, the new man of the house will have the final say in all domestic matters. This could be bad news for Vasilly Kuzovkin (Iain Glen,) an impoverished gentleman whose own estates have been tied up in legal wrangles for decades. Vasilly has lived as a guest of the family for 20 years, but Pavel would be within his rights to turf him out. When a bullying neighbour gets him drunk for his own amusement, Vasilly reveals a family secret that makes his welcome wear out all the sooner.

Ivan Turgenev's play, seen here in a version by Mike Poulton, lumbers from sub-Chekhovian drama to limp attempts at knockabout comedy, and Lucy Bailey's production struggles not only to reconcile these elements into anything that makes sense, but even come to life at all.

Opening with Vasilly being discovered living in the linen closet, Fortune's Fool's first act is largely played in a broad comic style that's unfortunately not backed up with any actual comedy. Things perk up briefly with the arrival of Richard McCabe as the blusteringly monstrous neighbour Tropatchov, but there's not much he can do with the material so an interminable dullness soon descends. Crucially, the awkward sense of failed comedy means that when the mood is meant to sour as Tropatchov and Pavel's mistreatment of Vasilly gets crueller, the shift is barely noticeable.

So when we return for a second act of the household dealing with the consequences of Vasilly's revelation, we're in an uncomfortable family drama that seems crudely bolted onto a different play. Vlahos' Pavel is also a problem as the character remains a bit of a nonentity. It's important for the new man of the house to be a mystery at first so that the people dependent on him don't know their fates; but he shouldn't remain so, especially not to the audience, and by the end I felt like I knew who Dyfan Dwyfor's footman Pyotr was better than I did him.

With its noble-born characters proving themselves fools to the serfs, who hang around upstage laughing at their antics because the audience isn't, Fortune's Fool clearly has political subtleties that feel unexplored. There may be a way to harness the play's awkward tonal shifts, but this criminally boring evening isn't it.

Fortune's Fool by Ivan Turgenev in a version by Mile Poulton is booking until the 22nd of February at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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