It has taken almost twenty years for Mike Poulton's adaptation of Turgenev's tragi-comedy to reach London, having premiered at Chichester in 1996 and won Alan Bates an award on Broadway.
It was worth the wait though the play is oddly structured with two distinctly different halves. It has some pertinent things to say about Russian provincial society. The fool of the title is Kuzovkin (Iain Glen) one of those hangers-on that every great Russian household seemed to have. Only the house has been devoid of its owner for some years and Kuzovkin lives a perilous existence, tolerated by the servants and sleeping in the linen cupboard.
His way of life is threatened by the arrival of the dead owner's daughter Olga with her Petersburg smart husband who comes to claim her childhood home. All seems well however until Olga's neighbour, the poisonous Troptachove, comes to call. A great menacing comic creation played with vicious brio by Richard McCabe who sets in train events which will affect the other characters and the rest of the play.
He plies the unfortunate Kuzovkin with drink after drink and in a comic setpiece of acting Glen becomes more inebriated as he recounts a complicated law suit from which he hopes to benefit. While there is humour in the narrative it is also a horrific ritual humiliation. Our laughter freezes on our lips. Goaded beyond endurance Kuzovkin lets slip a secret from the past.
At the heart of the play lies the concept of a gentleman. Kuzovkin though impoverished possesses all the integrity and goodheartedness of a gentleman with none of the snobbery exhibited by Troptachove who would claim to be a gentleman par excellence. Glenn is very moving both in conveying his sense of honour and the facility to humiliate himself to please others.
The second half tries to resolve the consequences of Kuzovkin's revelation with exchanges approaching the philosophical. The play ends in a rather unsatisfactory, 'damned if he does and damned if he doesn't' way. If the end of the play is ambiguous the two performances by Glen and McCabe are unmistakeably entertaining.