No vegetarian option for Christmas at the Old Vic this year, but an authentic, meaty Russian tragicomedy by Ivan Turgenev, best known for A Month in the Country, with two knock-out leading performances by Iain Glen and Richard McCabe.
Mike Poulton's "version" (no literal translation credited, alas) was seen briefly in Chichester in 1996 starring Alan Bates and Desmond Barrit, and Bates later won a Tony on Broadway in the role of Kuzovkin, an impoverished remnant of the landed gentry who is hanging around another family's country estate in 1848.
The colour and emotional depth of the play in Lucy Bailey's fine production hits you with a totally unexpected force. Although there are clearly elements of Gogol, Chekhov and Ostrovsky in its themes and poignancy, this is the authentic individual voice of a talented young writer (Turgenev was 30 when he wrote it) imparting a lot of information as well as anger and satire.
You are put in the mood by a wonderful, agile design by William Dudley (sensitively lit by Bruno Poet) which conveys the palatial, but fading grandeur of the place with its polished wooden floors, family portraits and antique furniture. When the new bride and heiress, Olga Petrovna (Lucy Briggs-Owen), arrives home after seven years in St Petersburg, the servants rush through the house and the walls dissolve into sliding panels to follow the party through the verdant vistas of the Italian gardens.
At the heart of the play is a secret that is flushed into the open when the foppish, pretentious neighbour, Tropatchov – played hilariously by McCabe as Micheál MacLiammóir in a green frock coat and fizzy hair-do doing his Oscar Wilde turn, but speeded up – goads and taunts Kuzovkin into spilling the beans.
Glen is first seen sleeping on the top shelf of the linen cupboard, and from there he tumbles into a riveting and graceful performance of ruined good looks and prospects which – like his mesmeric Vanya with Lucy Bailey at the Print Room recently – is rooted in a hopeless fixation; except, in this case, he has right on his side.
Kuzovkin has been "cheated" out of his fortune, and his paternal status, hanging hopelessly around for nearly three decades while an endless and futile court case is simmering off the boil, accompanied by another soft-hearted ex-landowner, Ivanov (John McAndrew).
We learn that this estate has 384 serfs, 850 acres of arable farmland, 580s acres of forest and several villages, so you can see how the Revolution happened, even if for now the chief steward, Trembinsky (tremendously well done by Daniel Cerqueira as an oily Cockney in the style of Phil Daniels, whom I thought he actually was for the first half hour), is playing along with the system.
The great scene of revelation is a tumult of mixed feelings and drunken outpouring, and the second act a series of heart-breaking encounters, compromises and stoic declarations.
Glen gives a leading performance of pain, intelligence and great technical accomplishment, while the rest of a strong cast includes Alexander Vlahos as the priggish new husband, a government official, and Janet Fullerlove as the fussing housekeeper.