Published in 1886, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich remains among the most immediate and moving of all literary meditations on mortality, documenting the demise of a seemingly successful man, a legal functionary, as he belatedly questions the value and purpose of his life. Rosemary Edwards, a translator of the text, describes the novella as “a powerful, sombre record…[It] gives what Tolstoy required art to give: it is kinetic, moving the reader to intense pity and awareness of the spiritually therapeutic properties of prolonged physical suffering finally resolved in death.”
Sounds a cheerful proposition, right? Well, Stephen Sharkey, in his expert new stage adaptation of the novella, succeeds in retaining the intense moral seriousness of Tolstoy’s vision while also incorporating some elements of dark humour – a touch of Beckettian irony – into the mix. Sharkey has shaped the narrative into a dramatic monologue performed by one actor in under one hour, and while this has resulted in some necessary stripping away – of elements of social context, of the protagonist’s background and family history – the essentials remain, sometimes even gaining potency in their new form as an embodied, closely shared theatrical experience. This is adaptation as distillation, and Sharkey, whose other adaptations include writings by Dickens and Dostoyevsky, has done a hugely impressive job of giving Tolstoy’s work a vivid, fresh and immersive theatrical life.
Pungent and wry, Sharkey’s text is expertly served by Attic Theatre’s production, directed by the company’s Artistic Director Jonathan Humphreys, which (as staged at Merton Arts Space) makes the play into a thrillingly intimate experience. At once eerie and welcoming, Grace Venning and Jess Bernberg’s brilliant design (set/costume and lighting, respectively) places the audience at tables lit by lanterns, conjuring an atmosphere of séance that feels entirely appropriate for Sharkey’s revisioning of the material as a ghost story of sorts. Jack Tarlton’s spectre-like Ivan takes his place amongst us, a spirit who’s unsure if we can see him. Once reassured, he begins to tell his tale: that of a St. Petersburg-born magistrate whose life – with its unhappy marriage, social climbing, gambling, and Law Court duties – is abruptly curtailed when he’s struck down with a mysterious illness some time after an accident.
As Ivan – by turns bitter, denying, scared, confused and questioning – gradually confronts his fate, so other presences (a dim prospective son-in-law, a hypocritical friend, a kindly young peasant carer) come into focus, with Sharkey also spotlighting Tolstoy’s indelible image of impending mortality as “the black sack,” both feared and desired by the protagonist.
A show as intimate as this one naturally stands or falls in large part on the strength of its actor, and it’s hard to see how Tarlton’s performance as Ivan could be bettered. From the opening moments, Tarlton makes us his fellows and confidantes, directing lines at individual audience members, taking a seat at certain tables, or even (in a gesture evoking the already-famed performance art set-piece in Ruben Östlund's new film The Square ) climbing atop one table to lay himself out as a corpse. Now still, now charging, Tarlton’s attention to the rhythms of the text is evident vocally as well as physically, and he keeps a palpable tension in the air, not allowing us to forget that Ivan’s fate is the common fate of everyone present. There’s catharsis in that recognition too, though, and Tarlton brings to Ivan’s journey a true sense of spiritual and emotional progression. It’s a terrific performance, rich and generous, unsentimental and intensely felt, and one that’s destined to make a deeply personal impression on all who see it.
In another generous gesture, Attic have been staging a stripped down, “pop up” version of the show, for free, at libraries in the Merton area. It’s to be hoped that Humphreys’s haunting production, and Tarlton’s great performance, continue to get the further life that they deserve.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich was performed at Merton Arts Space between the 6 and 29 October 2017, before one night at Theatre N16, and four free performances at libraries in the Merton borough.Photos: Claudia Marinaro