Which do you prefer – living or dying? Surely, it’s no contest.
But Unmasked Theatre’s adaption of Tolstoy’s classic novella ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ succeeds in complicating the issue. Of course, it’s not so much how you die as how you live. But, unfortunately, Ivan – the main character – seems to be bad at both. Nowadays we would say he is living in denial.
Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill have done an outstanding job in translating this story from Russia in the 1890s to a suburb in south east England today. When Ivan, a low class judge and defender of society’s morality, starts to feel unwell his illness appears to be a metaphor for sleepwalking through his life. With every step of the plot, Ivan’s existential crisis deepens and his physical health worsens.
Ivan, and most of his family, deny his slow decline. The doctors seem mildly interested. It might be cholesterol. He could try taking a yoghurt drink. But his work colleagues are simply opportunistic. They want the key to his office, his fob for the photocopy machine. The family are rather tired of the whole business. The youngsters take up on-line gambling in the living room. His wife goes out to see Madame Butterfly. “Oh, Ivan, you would have loved it.” Only his loyal carer appears empathetic and authentic.
At one point it seems that Ivan wakes up, realises his condition and takes action. There is his hilarious call to an online private health care provider. They say: “Just start by entering your 12-digit registration number followed by the hash key, but if you do not have a number please hold and…” Ivan slumps back defeated.
The acting succeeds in conveying the characters’ subtle indifference and avoidance of the events around them. Changes of mood are beautifully punctuated by excellent lighting and sounds throughout. The entry of an Abba soundtrack comes as an inspired contrast to the existential angst. But towards the end, there are a few too many “I believe in Angels” refrains and occasionally, the stage appears over-crowded. These small points do not detract from a high quality performance throughout.
The end is inevitable. But how Ivan gets there, and the way he muddles through an inauthentic life, will stick in the throat of most of us. Get to see it if you can! Before it’s too late.
Words by Mike Aiken
Photos by Unmasked Theatre
Rialto Theatre, Wednesday 8th – 13th May 2019