Theatre: Fortune's Fool; Chichester Festival

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In the new Simon Gray play that opened earlier this season at Chichester, Alan Bates took the role of a middle-aged widower suddenly confronted by a grown-up son he never knew he had. Now, in Fortune's Fool, the much-to-be-welcomed British premiere at Chichester of a powerful drama by Turgenev, Bates once again plays a man preoccupied by paternity. This time round, though, it's the child who is on the receiving end of the belated bombshell revelation.

Kuzovkin (Bates) is one of those shabby genteel hangers-on who seem to have been as obligatory a feature of Russian country estates as the samovar and the birch trees. Having served as court jester to the cruel and now deceased owner, Kuzovkin has stayed put among the dust-sheets, living a kind of shame-faced surrogate existence and ineffectually dreaming of his own inherited property, which is the subject of a labyrinthine legal wrangle.

Sending tremors through this stagnant pond, the daughter of the house, Olga Petrovna (Rachel Pickup), returns from seven years in St Petersburg with a new town-bred husband (Benedick Bates) in tow. First in to pay his self-serving respects is Desmond Barrit's brilliant Tropatchov, a sadistic fop who decides to amuse the company by treating Kuzovkin as fool-in-residence.

Plied with drink and false sympathy, sniggeringly egged on to give them a guided tour of the lawsuit's tortuous technicalities, Kuzovkin is subjected to an appalling ritual humiliation. In Gale Edwards's production, this spectacle of brutality toying with the sensitivities of the insecure gets right under your skin to the point where you have to restrain yourself from running on stage with clenched fists. The ordeal ends with Kuzovkin, standing at the centre of the table, wreaking revenge by declaring that it is he and not the violent former master who is Olga's father.

You could argue that Bates is miscast in the sense that it would be more moving to think that, all those years back, Olga's mother had turned for comfort to a kindly oddball rather than (as here) to a figure who must clearly have been romantic lead material. But, in most other respects, Bates's performance is both affecting and psychologically astute. You can almost feel the way the mildew of inanition has seeped into this man's self-respect, causing him to trick out his talk with apologetic little shrugging laughs and the wary, pleading grins of an animal caught in the wrong.

It's the bleak underlying dignity that comes across forcefully, though, in the post-revelation bargainings that constitute this character's tragic choice - tragic in that whatever course he takes will be wrong. There are moments in the scene between father and daughter when the writing falters into sentimental melodrama (the dead mother is idealised with an alienating thoroughness). But the final stretch of this unjustly neglected play, as the hero is forced to pretend that he has won his lawsuit and accept the jeering applause of people he knows are not to be taken in, is splendid as it looks with a steady compassionate eye at irony's cruel, sick jokes.

To 14 Sept. Booking: 01243 781 312