The Death Of Ivan Ilyich
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
Reviewed – 5th August 2019
“The cast work hard to portray a group of well-off people unprepared for tragedy and though this is occasionally comic, the point is not clear”
An audience of around twenty, respectable for a Monday night fringe show, were perhaps intrigued by the idea that a Tolstoy novella about the terrors of a life lived without meaning could work as light comedy. For Unmasked Theatre’s adaptation, bourgeois life around 19th Century St Petersburg is replaced with a technology-distracted Surrey milieu where we find self-satisfied, career ladder-climbing lawyer, Ivan Ilyich (Kevin Cherry), moving with his family into the splendid new home earned by his latest promotion. He then experiences a minor tumble from an actual ladder whilst hanging curtains. The resulting mysterious pain around his kidneys ineluctably becomes a terminal illness, giving him a grim, new perspective on friends and family. As mortality shifts the focal length of his moral lens, those closest to him appear superficial next to the authenticity of those he had previously considered least important, namely Gerasim (Tyrone Purling), his lower-class carer, and his youngest child, Vasya (George Todd).
The play follows the structure of the book, starting with the news of Ivan’s death and the reactions of his peer group. Then, after the respects are paid and sympathies relayed amid the banality of funeral arrangements, Ivan’s personal effects are boxed up for all eternity, at which point we head back to the start of the story. The strength of this chronology is that we know Ivan’s fate throughout and, at least in Tolstoy’s version, feel the ensuing horror of Ivan’s living death, as he slides, tormented, towards the inevitable.
However, Unmasked Theatre declare their version to be not about death, not even about Ivan, but about those who must witness dying. The cast work hard to portray a group of well-off people unprepared for tragedy and though this is occasionally comic, the point is not clear. Deprived of Ivan’s subjectivity, the characters’ behaviour seems normal. Dealing with death does indeed involve carrying on, trying to be cheerful, adapting to new realities and hoping for a cure, so it seems perverse to find it superficial or amusing.
The performances suit the topsy-turvy nature of the venture, with Kevin Cherry as Ivan starting weakly but getting better as he deteriorated and Sarah Widdas as his wife, Praskivya, creating just enough empathy to destroy the satire of her supposed insincerity. George Todd appears too old to be the tiny, overlooked Vasya with black rings around his eyes depicted in the novella, while Seerche Deveraux as Lisa is too slight a presence to resemble a brazen socialite. Even Tyrone Purling and Matt Turpin, who fare better with the two slippery doctors, are only successful because these characters are transplanted directly from the 19th Century when medics had to cover their cluelessness with bombast, so their emergence as comedy archetypes is fortuitous.
Like Ivan Ilyich, the enterprise is doomed from the start, but Pip O’Neill and Luke Oldfield co-direct to create a fluid production and provide a unique prism through which to experience Tolstoy’s late religious angst. Seen upside down, from another century, something of the original cautionary tale remains.
Reviewed by Dominic Gettins
Photography by Pip O’Neill
The Death Of Ivan Ilyich
Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 6th August as part of Camden Fringe 2019
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: