Fortune’s Fool ****
Echoing Shakespeare’s grief-stricken Romeo, the tragic tone of this play is immediately established in its title. Blending charade with the grotesque, Bailey serves a dramatic feast as indulgent as Trimalchio’s banquets in Petronius’ iconic satire to which Turgenev’s play is indebted.
The opening sees a frail Kuzovkin (played by none other than Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen) descend from the heights of the cupboard which constitutes his bedchamber. Glen’s skulking bodily movements tone down the humour in this humorous visual suggestion of his fall from grace, injecting a decided note of pathos. Physically confined, Glen similarly dramatises Kuzovkin’s docility through his hesitant speech and whispered stuttering as we are kept on the edge of our seats in order to hear his subdued soliloquies.
Glen’s humility is offset by the horrendous humour of Richard McCabe as he plays the affluent neighbour Tropatchov, whose toadyish pranks form a stark contrast with Glen’s restraint. Here is tragic-comedy it at its peak. As the servants form a kind of tragic chorus, the pedantry in their excessive preparations for the newly-married countess and her husband can only to be reduced to determined bathos with Lucy Briggs-Owen’s entrance through a side-passage. And just like that, in the languid trail of her dress and placid movements, satire triumphs as the domestics’ extravagant labours prove futile.
Although Briggs-Owen herself could be considered an anti-climax in her awkwardly affected voice, her shortcomings largely enhance the disillusionment so central to the play’s message. For beneath every glittering veneer, glistening champagne flute and silken sleeve lies disappointment.
The ending, too, is ambivalent. We never quite know how to regard Kuzovkin. The possibility of his being a swindler out for the countess’ money remains open. Much of the drama is ‘flat’ in that Briggs-Owen has all the airs of a stereotypical comic heroine and even Glen is sometimes too self-effacing. However, Bailey manages to maintain the play’s integrity through the beauty of the period staging and delicate contrast of melodrama with muted melancholy.
The play stands as a moving tale of love against vice. The moments of anti-climax only contribute to how convincing the tributes to social realism are. The drama is governed by the classical unities as – like Kuzovkin himself – it is demonstrably restrained in dramatic innovation. Nevertheless, frivolity and farce form a perfect union with tragedy. For all the play’s social and familial dissonance, at least one harmonious union is secured. Family and society may disappoint but the joys of drama never fail to delight.
Fortune’s Fool is showing at the Old Vic theatre in London until 22nd February