The Theatreguide.London Review
Old Vic Theatre Winter 2013-2014
In Chekhov's Seagull, the writer Trigorin bemoans the fact that his obituaries will say that he was a good writer, but no Tolstoy. Well, Ivan Turgenev is a good writer, but no Chekhov or even Gogol, and Fortune's Fool is a good play, but not a great one.
Still, it has two strong roles and a couple of potentially powerful scenes, and is certainly worthy of revival. One might have expected the National Theatre to get around to it, but here it is the Old Vic offering it for consideration.
In the mid-nineteenth century a Russian country estate is all a-dither because the young lady of the house, away since childhood, is returning with her new husband. Greeting her, along with servants and neighbours, is an old family friend, an impoverished aristocrat who has been living in the house for decades like the poor relation in an English novel.
A sadistic neighbour sets out, for no particular reason except his own amusement, to humiliate this charity case by getting him drunk in front of the new master of the house. But the drunken man blurts out something about which I'm going to have to be vague. If it's true, it will cause a great deal of pain, and if it's false, withdrawing it will cause a great deal of pain.
It is left for the man who said it, the young lady and her husband to try to find the least worst way out of the mess they've stumbled into. So Fortune's Fool is about honourable people trying honourably to cause the least pain to the least number when a happy ending is not an option.
The main thing that keeps this play from greatness is that its cast is too clearly divided into heroes and villains, with too few ambiguities or complexities. That interfering neighbour is a total baddie and the rest have nothing worse than small frailties – the poor man is weak and sentimental, the husband a bit stiff, etc. – to colour their characters or give them much dimension.
One can't help comparing Turgenev to Chekhov, who would have given everybody enough in the way of back story and incidental quirks to make them more human than symbol, and by that high standard, as hard as the actors and director Lucy Bailey try, there just isn't enough here to draw us in.
(A smaller but noticeable problem is one of simple dramaturgy – at least two key scenes involve an extended narrative of exposition, one character telling another, and us, essential information the playwright hasn't found a way to get in any other way, and the play stops dead while the raw data is poured in.)
Iain Glen can't quite conquer the difficulty of playing the poor man who is introduced as a comic character and then must abruptly become the moral and emotional centre of the play, though he does generate some sympathy as this weak and passive man tries desperately to find strength.
Richard McCabe makes the nasty neighbour thoroughly despicable and detestable, and one can only wish that playwright or director had offered him some other colours to play.
The roles of the newly-weds are particularly thin, and all Lucy Briggs-Owen and Alexander Vlahos are given to do is look attractive, wring their hands in distress and be good people. Ironically, it is Richard Henders and Dyfan Dwyfor who find more dimension to their quite minor roles than the playwright has given to the leading actors.