"Fortune's Fool"

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Bates's performance is both affecting and psychologically astute.



There are hilarious shafts at Russian society. Kuzovkin's recounting of the 26-year court case that impoverished him is a collector's item.



 t h e a t r e

Fortune's Fool

Fortune's Fool
, by Ivan Turgenev
(Kuzovkin), August, 1996, Chichester Festival Theatre,
and September, 1996, Theatre Royal, Bath
directed by Gale Edwards

Independent, 08-30-1996
Paul Taylor, Theatre

IN THE NEW Simon Gray play that opened earlier this season at Chichester, Alan Bates took the role of a middle-aged widower suddenly confronted by a grown-up son he never knew he had. Now, in Fortune's Fool, the much-to-be-welcomed British premiere atChichester of a powerful drama by Turgenev, Bates once again plays a man preoccupied by paternity. This time round, though, it's the child who is on the receiving end of the belated bombshell revelation.
Kuzovkin (Bates) is one of those shabby genteel hangers-on who seem o have been as obligatory a feature of Russian country estates as the samovar and the birch trees. Having served as court jester to the cruel and now deceased owner, Kuzovkin has stayed put among the dust-sheets, living a kind of shame-faced surrogate existence and
ineffectually dreaming of his own inherited property, which is the subject of a labyrinthine legal wrangle.
Sending tremors through this stagnant pond, the daughter of the house, Olga Petrovna (Rachel Pickup), returns from seven years in St Petersburg with a new town-bred husband (Benedick Bates) in tow. First in to pay his self-serving respects is Desmond Barrit's brilliant Tropatchov, a sadistic fop who decides to amuse the company by treating Kuzovkin as fool-in-residence.
Plied with drink and false sympathy, sniggeringly egged on to give them a guided tour of the lawsuit's tortuous technicalities, Kuzovkin is subjected to an appalling ritual humiliation. In Gale Edwards's production, this spectacle of brutality toying with the sensitivities of the insecure gets right under your skin to the point where you have to restrain yourself from running on stage with clenched fists. The ordeal ends with Kuzovkin, standing at the centre of the table, wreaking revenge by declaring that it is he and not the violent former master who is Olga's father.
You could argue that Bates is miscast in the sense that it would be more moving to think that, all those years back, Olga's mother had turned for comfort to a kindly oddball rather than (as here) to a figure who must clearly have been romantic lead material. But, in most other respects, Bates's performance is both affecting and psychologically astute. You can almost feel the way the mildew of inanition has seeped into this man's self-respect, causing him to trick out his talk with apologetic little shrugging laughs and the wary, pleading grins of an animal caught in the wrong.
It's the bleak underlying dignity that comes across forcefully, though, in the post-revelation bargainings that constitute this character's tragic choice - tragic in that whatever course he takes will be wrong. There are moments in the scene between father and daughter when the writing falters into sentimental melodrama (the dead mother is
idealised with an alienating thoroughness). But the final stretch of this unjustly neglected play, as the hero is forced to pretend that he has won his lawsuit and accept the jeering applause of people he knows are not to be taken in, is splendid as it looks with a steady compassionate eye at irony's cruel, sick jokes. |||

Belated Release of a Hostage to Fortune
By Ismène Brown
Saturday 31 August 1996

Festival Theatre - Chichester. When a "comic masterpiece" by a great Russian writer takes 144 years to get to the British stage, your desire to cheer is slightly undermined by disquiet - why did it take 144 years?
Mike Poulton (who adapted Chichester's recent Uncle Vanya) is a Turgenev obsessive who last year was given a copy of a "lost" Turgenev comedy, Fortune's Fool (or The Parasite). For Chichester he has attempted to prune an unworkably long piece into a taut comic drama. So Urtext this is not.
The story is full of poignancy and mischief. To a neglected country mansion comes its inheritor, a newly married young woman, and her well-connected husband - something in the ministry. In the house lives a poor gentleman taken in as a "court jester" by the young woman's father 30 years earlier. Dependent, unoccupied, helpless, he waits to be evicted.
He seals his own fate by getting drunk and claiming that he is the new chatelaine's real father. Act 2 attempts to deal with the fall-out from this revelation. In the end, he accepts humiliation and a large cheque, and the young couple's marriage has been undermined.

Chichester has spared nothing in star-power - Alan Bates plays the central part, the poor Kuzovkin; his son Benedick plays the new master; and the magnificent Desmond Barrit - sweaty, flushed, piggy-eyed - is the neighbour who forces the confession into the open.
Gale Edwards's production, for all its pains, takes too straightforward a line, bypassing depths that explain and enrich the comic drama. Alan Bates gives us, persuasively, a good man wronged, without any hint of a possibility that he might be a liar - surely the suspense underpinning the bargains.
Benedick Bates, in the pivotal role of the politician, wavers between compassion and social outrage with the expressiveness of a Dalek, and his encounters with his wife (Rachel Pickup) are unconvincing.
The whole production seems undecided between satire and naturalism. The servants are a hammy lot, somewhere between "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" and "My Fair Lady," which blurs the network of exact social distinctions that makes Kuzovkin's plight so peculiarly painful, so peculiarly Russian.
A mordant play does periodically bite through. There are hilarious shafts at Russian society. Kuzovkin's recounting of the 26-year court case that impoverished him is a collector's item (virtuosically delivered by Alan Bates); Desmond Barrit, as a parvenu torturing the English (and French and Italian) languages, is probably funnier than Turgenev could have imagined. |||

from The Daily Telegraph, 7.ix.96

"Fortune's Fool" at the Chichester Festival Theatre, is an early play by Turgenev, written in 1848, when he was 30. ("A Month in the Country" was written six years later.) Until now it has been virtually unknown in this country, which turns out to have been very much our loss.
Olga Petrovna returns to the estate she has inherited with her young husband, a St Petersburg councillor. One of those waiting to greet her is Kuzovkin, who has lived on the estate for the past 30 years as a dependent and (to some extent) the resident clown. At dinner that night the more unpleasant of the guests ply him with drink and get him to tell the long, convoluted and absurd-sounding story of how he was cheated out of his own estate. Finally they goad him so cruelly that he blurts out his secret - he is Olga's father; and the rest of the play is taken up with the repercussions.
Gale Edwards's production gets off to a dreadful start. The homecoming scene is hopelessly mannered, with servants striking ludicrous poses and a major-domo who sounds as though he has stepped straight out of a British sitcom.
Then things start to improve, and though there are still some clumsy touches the excellence of the play itself wins through. The dinner-party is a superb set piece: in its final phase, with Kuzovkin bullied to distraction, it is almost unbearable. The reactions of the main characters the following day are fascinatingly ambiguous.
Alan Bates captures Kuzovkin's pathos but doesn't altogether convey his grotesque side: you feel he has kept too much of his dignity for there to be much drama in his attempts to win it back. Still, it is an excellent performance, full of sensitive detail. The triumph of the evening, however, is Desmond Barrit as the florid, evil-minded neighbour whose bullying precipitates the disaster. He is like one of those Dickensian monsters who are more frightening than funny - a fearsomely vivid presence, and quite unforgettable. |||