The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Rialto Theatre Brighton
Reviewed – 8th May 2019
“as an audience, we remained uninvested and disconnected from Ivan’s fate, and therefore the story had no meaning”
Tolstoy wrote the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich in 1886, some years after his mid-life religious conversion. It tells the story of a high-court judge in 19th century Russia; his suffering from terminal illness and eventual death. This ‘updated version’ is faithful to the novella’s structure. We watch Ivan Ilyich’s painful decline in the midst of his family, who are too busy attending to their own selfish needs to see what is actually happening to him until it’s too late. We see his colleagues, intent on climbing the promotional ladder; his so-called best friend, with whom he no longer has any meaningful connection; and the pompous and self-congratulatory medical establishment, too immersed in their own concerns to properly address the needs of their patient. The only character capable of kindness and empathy, in this adaptation as well as in the novella, is Gerasim, the young man who cares for him. Ivan’s world (and by extension, our own) is exposed as one of petty materialism, and his relationships as empty and superficial. When he has his crisis of the soul, on the brink of death, we see that Gerasim’s kindness and empathy is the only truth, and the essential meaning of what it is to be alive.
Over a century on from Tolstoy’s profound literary meditation on the meaning of life and death, at a time when the world is hurtling toward climate catastrophe yet capitalist economies show no sign of paying attention, and materialist consumer culture is all-pervasive, an updated version of this simple story could be a searing and confrontational piece of theatre. Unfortunately, Unmasked Theatre’s banal, soulless and amateurish production was none of those things. It takes more than the addition of contemporary props (the ubiquitous mobile and laptop) and clunky references (the John Lewis Christmas ad) to update a story. And why, oh why, did Unmasked choose to stick with the Russian names? If we’re going to be in middle-class England, let’s actually be there. Kevin Cherry, as Ivan, made a reasonable fist of his central role, but the characterisation elsewhere was utterly superficial and the actors’ delivery skin-deep and unconnected. Multi-role work takes more than a change of clothing, and none of the characters were clearly realised or defined, which meant that, as an audience, we remained uninvested and disconnected from Ivan’s fate, and therefore the story had no meaning.
Putting on a fringe production is a labour of love, and there is rarely much money to go round, which means that fancy production design is not on the menu. Simplicity and invention therefore have to be the name of the game, and, sadly, this lesson did not seem to have been learned here. The tiny stage was far too busy, there were too many unnecessary costume changes, and the lighting and sound design was intrusive and heavy-handed (it was also unfortunate that there was clearly a rogue light which flashed on centre stage throughout). There was one well-realised and inventive staging sequence, involving the arrival of packages into the house, but it was the only one, and ultimately the only emotion this reviewer experienced at Ivan Ilyich’s death was relief.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Zo Morgan
The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Rialto Theatre Brighton until 13th May as part of Brighton Fringe
Last ten shows covered by this reviewer: