First staged at the Chichester Festival in 1996, Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Turgenev’s 1848 play finally comes to London in a beautiful production at The Old Vic. We are in 19th-century Russia complete with samovar and servants. As in Chekhov’s ”Cherry Orchard”, the servants are jolted out of their tranquillity and run ineffectively to and fro preparing for the arrival of guests to the estate. Meanwhile, Vassily Semyonitch Kuzovkin, a man who appears to be neither servant nor master, embarks on a game of chess with his friend Ivan Kuzmitch Ivanov. Through some cranky initial exposition, we learn that Kuzovkin is anxious about the impending arrival.
Kuzovkin, a penniless, shabby and insecure gentleman, who has remained at the estate as a permanent guest for nearly 30 years, initially brought in as the “court jester” to the long dead and vicious patriarch, now fears that the homecoming of the heiress and her new husband will mean his expulsion. He frets that she will not remember the special relationship he had with the young girl before her departure at the age of thirteen for St Petersburg. When Olga Petrovna and her husband Pavel Nikolaitch Yeltesky finally arrive all seems well for genteel parasite Kuzovkin.
With nothing to do but entertain your neighbours, hospitality is “de rigueur” with these landowners. Olga and Pavel have yet to unpack before in walks Flegont Alexandrovitch Tropatchov, the “nouveau” very camp and bored neighbour, accompanied by his grovelling sidekick, Karpatchov, or “Little Fish” as he calls him. Sensing an opportunity to bully a poor and defenceless man, he invites himself for lunch. Easily convinced to join them at table are Kuzovkin and Ivanov. Tropatchov quickly brushes Pavel aside and, to relieve his country boredom, viciously humiliates the unassuming Kuzovkin.
Prompted by the assembled guests, Kuzovkin drunkenly recounts his tortuous lawsuit of 26 years, complete with genealogical observations, to regain control of his grandfather’s estate. Flinging his napkin around and flailing embarrassingly, we learn that he is now represented by a retired train signalman. Surely a clear sign of Turgenev’s own opinion of what he later coined “the superfluous man.” His dignity is completely shattered when, forced to sing, he finally realises that they have made a fool of him. In retaliation for this humiliation, he calls Tropatchov an “infamous, fatuous fop” and blurts out a secret that will occupy the rest of the play and virtually ensures his eviction.
According to Poulton, the original, written by a 30-year-old Turgenev, was an old and un-performable play. This version, though performable, is not a masterpiece but it does offer some enjoyment. The subject will be recognisable to anyone familiar with Russian literature, with its study of wasted lives and aristocratic ennui. My problem was that I couldn’t figure out if it wanted to be a comedy or a psychological melodrama. The play moved between a convenient first act plot revelation and a somewhat sentimental second act.
Iain Glen brings to Kuzovkin the initial hesitancy and cringing subservience of a weak and pathetic man who has been ruined by events and his own inaction. He portrays the character’s dignity touchingly even in the face of poverty and ruin. Richard McCabe is hateful as the flamboyant French-spouting snob whose mannerisms were funny but somewhat at odds with the fundamental subject matter. Alexander Vlahos’ character, Pavel, wavers undecidedly between indifference and outrage, and keeps the “weak man” theme running along nicely. His interactions with his wife, Olga, are oddly unconvincing though I suspect the unruly text is to blame for this. Lucy Briggs-Owen, as Olga, is refreshing in a cast dominated by men though her deportment seemed a little too modern at times. The loyal Invanov, John McAndrews, was fine as the reasonable friend while Richard Henders’ Karpatchov conveyed perfectly the cowering hanger-on who identifies with Kuzovkin’s hopeless attempt at regaining his dignity. The production by Lucy Bailey is beautiful and the sets by William Dudley are particularly worthy of a mention.
The start of this unpromising sitcom, with servants running at cross-purposes, was finally erased by the end when our protagonist’s nobility of spirit surely exceeded everyone else’s in the room. It remains, however, that the stakes for these Russian aristocrats are difficult to relate to for a modern audience.