The Death of Ivan Ilyich review at Merton Arts Space, London – ‘a haunting monologue’

Jack Tarlton in The Death of Ivan Ilyich at Merton Arts Space, London. Photo: Claudia Marinaro Jack Tarlton in The Death of Ivan Ilyich at Merton Arts Space, London. Photo: Claudia Marinaro
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Leo Tolstoy’s masterly 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich has been successfully adapted by Stephen Sharkey into a one-man show for the Merton-based Attic Theatre Company.

Turning the third-person narrative into an extended monologue works rather well, even if much of Tolstoy’s piercing observations on 19th-century Russian bourgeois society are lost.

Written soon after his late religious conversion, the tale of the eponymous court official who suddenly becomes terminally ill in his 40s and is forced to reassess his life reflects Tolstoy’s own confronting of mortality. Ivan first feels there is no justice as he has done nothing very wrong, but the compassion of a servant in contrast with his family’s indifference changes his outlook.

Jack Tarlton gives a compelling performance, returning from “the other side” to tell us how he came to realise that all his years of climbing the social ladder were wasted as material success counts for nothing when death comes calling.

Ghost-like, he appears from behind a curtain, asking “How long have we got?” and looking at his pocket watch as if afraid he won’t have time to tell us his story, but the question evidently refers to the uncertainty of life’s duration too. Tarlton engages directly with individual members of the audience both vocally and by eye contact, shaking hands and clapping shoulders, encouraging a response to his metaphysical musings.

Like Attic’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations last year, this production is staged at Merton Arts Space within (rather appropriately) Wimbledon Library. Artistic Director Jonathan Humphreys has used an effective cabaret-style staging with the audience sitting at tables adorned with a large glass sphere enclosing a light bulb. At first the atmosphere is a bit like a seance, but the brightening of the lights at the end suggests some form of spiritual illumination.

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A haunting monologue on mortality based on Tolstoy’s novella