The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Probably Unmasked Theatre’s best outing yet for its trademark full use of the Rialto Theatre space

Unmasked Theatre
Rialto Theatre

Adapted and directed by Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill

New Writing South Best New Play Award 2019 Shortlist

Tolstoy’s late novella is here adapted for the stage in a new play written and directed by Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill, and currently shortlisted for New Writing South’s Best New Play Award 2019.

A judge and his family move to a smart new home and all’s marvellous. Until a deftly-staged fall sets off a spiral down to the inevitable conclusion.

Kevin Cherry takes a commanding lead, a fussily precise control gradually stripped away as the dreary inevitability of dying begins its creep. He’s not going gently; raging, questioning and fighting as the dull debris of dying piles up around his central writhing figure.

The family are getting on with being alive, perhaps more urgently now – parties, snogging, dressing up for a posh evening out – because they know they’re helpless.

Time’s fluid – we begin and end at the end, with Ivan’s funeral and we delve back through time to his decline, back to his own childhood, then snap back to his death. The writing preserves a sense of its nineteenth century Russian origins, matched with its present day setting. At the end of life, Ivan delves into some huge solo themes, while the twenty first century life of online gaming, social media and phone-addicted teens whirls around him regardless.

Sarah Widdas is warmth and truth personified as practical wife Praskovya needing a night at the theatre in a gorgeous frock, Bronte Sandwell’s a sweet daughter Lisa flitting and flirting about, and George Todd endears as young Vasya – all’s normal in these teens’ world (apart from this dreadful thing happening in the corner), and there’s great support and range from Matt Turpin and Bradley Thomas, doubling a fleeting cast of friends and doctors.

One of the highlights of the piece is Liam Murray Scott, doubling as smarmy hearty Schwartz, practical diamond Gerasim and unlistening Doctor Jones. He’s an assured and powerful actor who makes this look easy.

Probably Unmasked Theatre’s best outing yet for its trademark full use of the Rialto Theatre space – energy and movement, in-scene set changes, speaking from the audience plus a raised spotlit dais at the back, Ivan’s stage for his death scene. He’s part of the family, yet separate and above them, blue-lit and isolated.

A couple of polishing notes – The dais sometimes meant others turned their backs on the audience to speak to Ivan, which meant we lost clarity, projection and subtext. The play’s more about those affected by death than dying itself, and if they remained looking at us we could see the truth of what was going on beneath their socially careful words as they perform the trying task of chatting to a dying man. I’d like a little more volume and articulation from some – the Rialto’s an intimate space, but still needs those voices to hit the back walls.

In the end, this was exactly how my father’s last few months happened in my family. It’s something we’ll all experience, and we have no training in how to deal with it. The programme apologises for not including a trigger warning on the promotional material. It wasn’t necessary. Audiences have always understood the value of catharsis.

Philippa Hammond
Sussex Playwrights Reviews