Fortune’s Fool, at the Old Vic

Saint Paul's from across the river.
Saint Paul’s from across the river.

So our first real day in London (December 31), we rush over to the Old Vic, and are fortunate to get tickets for Fortune’s Fool by Turgenev, in a translation by Mike Poulton. There’s a discrete sign in the lobby saying that due to the indisposition of John McAndrew, the part of Kuzovkin will be played by Patrick Cremin, the understudy. It turns out that Kuzovkin is the main role, dominating practically every scene. What about that? Did we see the play that other’s saw?

For my part, I was very happy with the evening. Patrick Cremin did a fine job. I hope that John McAndrew is feeling better, but I didn’t miss him. The play is very much an ensemble piece, very finely tuned, and it came across beautifully.

The script is very interesting. It pre-dates Chekov by several decades, but you could say that it combines elements reminiscent of Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard. The mistress of a country estate returns, after years away, with her new husband, reacquainting herself with the scenes of her childhood, her old serfs and her neighbours. She finds an impoverished gentleman, Kuzovkin, who was a permanent guest of her parents and has continued to live there after their deaths. She and her husband are courteous, but a neighbour reveals that he is to be treated as a object of ridicule. At a drinking party, he is humiliated, until he is driven to reveal a secret known only to himself. At the end of the play, he speaks his mind about the corruption of the aristocracy. Very 19th-century, you could say, but the workings-out are finely drawn by playwright, translator and cast. And the reversal at the conclusion, when the underdog reveals his contempt for the system that oppresses him, still has power to move.  I liked the design very well, a well-orchestrated colour palette, and sets that seemed substantial but actually consisted of fabric drops.

On the subject of understudies, many years ago, in London, I saw the premiere of Stoppard’s wonderful play, Jumpers, with Michael Hordern and Diana Rigg (yes, 1972). Only . . . that night, Diana Rigg was indisposed. Let me say that her understudy was terrific, and that play has stayed in my memory as one of the high points of my theatre experience.

(The picture has nothing to do with the play. I didn’t take any pictures of the Old Vic, though.)

2 thoughts on “Fortune’s Fool, at the Old Vic”

    1. It’s well worth considering. This version by Mike Poulton was first performed in 1992. It ran on Broadwaysdsd and in Chichester, but not London. Poulton is also the author of adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which have just opened at Stratford upon Avon. As you can imagine, Judith and I are doing our best to see them while we’re here. Although it is sold out, we think we can get standing room or returns.

      So, the upshot is that this is a well-known version by a playwright who is pretty hot at the moment. I asked at the Old Vic if they had copies, but they weren’t selling them. I’m not sure if it’s published, but I’ll check at the National Theatre bookstore. It’s a very good script.

Leave a Reply