Review: 'The Death Of Ivan Ilyich' At Merton Arts Space

You'll be immersed in this drama, running in Wimbledon to October 29

I wasn't expecting to find myself quite so involved with the powerful one-man drama, 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich' at Merton Arts Space in Wimbledon Library.

But this 55-minute adaptation of Tolstoy's novella, telling the story of a high-court judge, his sufferings and death from a terminal illness in 19th century Russia had everyone in the audience positively rapt with the gripping tale.

As we gathered in the new-ish Merton Arts Space at the back of the library (accessed via Compton Road) there was almost a feeling of a seance before actor Jack Tarlton walked in.

The dimmed lights on each round table of seats, coupled with the haunting Russian background music, set the atmosphere perfectly as Tarlton opened the performance with a question.

He asked the audience if we were actually there, and could we hear him? This put us all on a bit of an edge and there were some faint murmured replies. But the scene was now set as Ivan Ilyich told the story of his life and death, moving deftly around the room without need for a stage. He only stepped off the floor when he proceeded to lay himself on one of the tables as though his body had just been laid out.

But he didn't stay there for long as he went back to the story of his life and the 17 days in which he took to die after a fall in his new family apartment. Yes, it's dark and could be depressing for some. However, the over-whelming impression is that this was a thought-provoking production that must have opened up post-show discussions for all those who attended.

As Ivan's injured and opium-raddled body was coming to the end of its time, his brain forced him to review the meaning of life and had he done all the right things? There was more interaction with the audience, which all worked very well and added to the slightly unreal atmosphere.

What emerged is that before his death he feared slipping into the "black bag" without a chance to go back and do some things in a different way. His hatred of his wife and ex-colleagues - the "chinless wonders" - came across quite starkly. But there was an affection for his carer and his son, which made him seem a more human character at the end.

The lighting and music worked well again as the play wound up. I'd been impressed that the sound insulation meant we never heard a hint of night-time Wimbledon as the drama unfolded. When the lights came on, we were back in the real world and it was time to reflect on the play's dark themes.

This really is a different drama and Tarlton's performance, with his clear Scottish tones, made it an unforgettable night. Personally I also liked the short intensity of the evening, making it recommended not only for those who can devour 'War and Peace', but anyone who can spare just an hour or so for a truly immersive experience.

By Sue Choularton

  • The Attic Theatre Co production of 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich', written by Stephen Sharkey and directed by Jonathan Humphreys, runs at Merton Arts Space until October 29. It's part of the 'Fringe Festival' of Wimbledon Bookfest.

October 12, 2017