Ivan has done everything he was meant to do. He worked hard, he married, he had children and he moved to the country. He is middle aged, middle class and middlingly happy. He snaps at his family and worries about the minutiae of pen on the sofa and handbags left lying around. However, in the blink of an eye, mortality comes barrelling towards him when an apparently trivial home decorating injury quickly develops into something worse.
A huge story for a Fringe production to tackle
Doctors offer all kinds of diagnoses and treatment, some more believable than others, but Ivan Ilyich swiftly knows that he is dying. When confronted with the pain, invisibility and loneliness of his condition he begins to reflect upon his life choices and the very nature of pain and death. For his family and colleagues, his death is an awkward embarrassment; they are relieved not to be dying themselves but also disturbed by the obvious truth. As Ivan exclaims 'we are all doomed to suffer this utter horror'. This story is not a cheery one. Only in the character of Ivan’s endlessly kind end-of-life nurse, Gerasim, are we allowed a more hopeful view of human nature.
Written in the 1880s as a novella by the literary giant that was Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich wrestles with themes of happiness, family, superficiality and of course, death. Tolstoy became somewhat obsessed with death and the concept of a life well lived in his later years. He himself walked out of his family home, and out on his wife of 48 years, to die a handful of days later in a railway station of pneumonia in the depths of the parochial Russian winter. He lived and died as he wrote.
It is a huge story for a Fringe production to tackle, but Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill have given it a good go. For such a morbid premise the show starts very frothily and makes good use of its contemporary setting. There are a surprising number of big laughs generated with knowing jokes at the expense of the impersonal medical industry and millennial ‘go getter’ culture. Ivan is variously prescribed ‘Yakult’, drugs and a course of mindfulness for his illness. One of the more poignant moments was the arrival of a procession of Amazon parcels for the invalid as the family attempt to replace care and empathy with retail goods.
For me, the acting was a bit hit and miss. Kevin Cherry, as Ivan, delivered with gravity in the latter half as things took a darker turn. Liam Murray-Scott believably and pleasingly interpreted a modern version of Gerasim, but was less convincing with the dislikable Schwartz. The juxtaposition of contemporary comedy with dark themes can be done brilliantly but doesn’t quite knit together here and leaves the audience neither rolling in the aisles nor seriously contemplative. The show suffers when compared to its source material for a general lack of weight and impact but in itself is a well turned out piece.