1848 in rural Russia: early morning in the great house,  maids opening up.  High in the great linen-cupboard a man sleeps, yet a footman brings him his trousers.  It’s a neat metaphor Ivan Turgenev offers us for  the status of Kuzovkin (Iain Glen)  on the 1848 estate. He  is chivvied by bustling servants, relegated to a corner  with his (as yet inexplicably) anxious friend Ivanov,  but is no servant. He was the impoverished, patronized “fool” to the late owner, and seven years on still hangs around. Waiting, as they all are, for the return of the estate’s young heiress (Lucy Briggs-Owen)  and her important St Petersburg husband.

Domestic fuss makes for comedy; but this gripping, rarely seen revival (new to the West End, though played in Chichester in 2006 and on Broadway) is tragicomic: profound and angry.   The first act sees young Olga’s cheerful recognition of old Kuzovskin and  her prim husband’s inspection of accounts,  but in the midst of it arrives the neighbour Tropatchov (Richard McCabe),  a stout snobbish fop in a gold waistcoat, with black curly hair like an asymmetric Elizabeth Barrett Browning.    He is insistent, insolent, overconfident to the point of psychopathy,  prone to breaking into pretentious French.  He trails an impoverished insulted companion (as essential to a Tsarist grandee, it seems, as a parasol to his lady).   The young host has no control: they  get  Kuzovskin drunk,  goad him to explain the tedious intricacies of the court case which made him homeless,  and with increasing nastiness force him to sing for his supper, throw drink over him and humiliate him.

For a time I could not see where this was going: the end of Act I is the Bullingdon dinner from hell.   But in the last line the “fool” blows complacency to smithereens with a revelation   I didn’t read the play before,  as there is joy in coming afresh to a classic:  I won’t spoil it.  But in the second act the  household try to resolve it with varying degrees of panic, hypocrisy and tenderness.   Which takes us into a wrenching , beautifully told scene of sadness, longing and love.   Lucy Briggs-Owen,  who so often has lit up RSC evenings of late,  rises from her vivid girlish playfulness to heights of truthful emotion.    Glen, whose bendy-legged humiliation is still  fresh in our memory, becomes a sort of Lear:  when he says ‘My heart is broken, that’s all.  It wasn’t much of a heart”  I shook in my seat.

Director Lucy Bailey has a marvellous cast.  McCabe  – last seen as Harold Wilson – is an astonishing Tropachov, and it is an astonishing part:  ludicrous, buffoonish, yet so horrifying in its dangerous spite that you catch your breath in terror for the victims of his teasing threats.  The genius of Turgenev – and of Mike Poulton’s flawlessly convincing adaptation – is that this preening horror comes after we have witnessed the profound pain of the central pair.

By contrast, the role of Pavel the young husband  (Alexander Vlahos)  is difficult in the opposite way:  a well-meaning prig, victim of the stifling fin-de-siecle convention the play kicks against.  But towering over them all is Iain Glen as Kuzovkin;  a coward afraid of “the world outside –  poverty, unkindness, the insolence of life” but clinging to the core of love, and knowing his own folly and weakness so well  that he achieves a dignity not far from holiness.   A very Russian figure.  It is the glory of great theatre, to carry us   into other times, other hearts, and make us love them.

box office 0844 8717628  to 22 Feb

rating:  five   5 Meece Rating


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