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.
h e a t r e
Fortune's Fool, by Ivan Turgenev
(Kuzovkin), August, 1996, Chichester Festival Theatre,
and September, 1996, Theatre Royal, Bath
directed by Gale Edwards
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
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
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.
from The Daily Telegraph, 7.ix.96
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. |||
"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. |||