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Duet for One

by on 24 October 2017

Adagio furioso

Duet for One

by Tom Kempinski

Lee Dean and Daniel Schumann in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre

at Richmond Theatre until 28th October, then on tour until 11th November

Review by Mark Aspen

“Shrinks versus nuts”, two hours in the psychiatrist’s chair: such a play seems unlikely to create dynamic theatre.  But Duet for One achieves much more than the unlikely.  It excels as a gripping, intensive and moving piece of theatre.

In the hands of acclaimed director Robin Lefevre, Tom Kempinski’s taut eulogy to the resilience of the human spirit totally absorbed the audience at its Richmond opening.

World-famous violinist Stephanie Abrahams is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is desperately trying to cope with the trauma of the disease, which has taken away her ability to play and has left her largely confined to a wheel-chair.   Her husband David, an equally renowned composer, arranges for her to have counselling and treatment from emigre psychiatrist Dr Feldmann, hoping that she can come to terms with her condition.

Belinda Lang as Stephanie Abrahams in DUET FOR ONE. Credit Robert Day

Intriguingly, there is a note in the programme by the playwright himself denying the long held view that the character of Stephanie Abrahams is based on Jacqueline du Pré, the universally acclaimed cellist whose young career was brought to an abrupt end when she contracted multiple sclerosis in 1971.  Kempinski wrote the play in the late 70s for his wife Frances de la Tour, who played the leading role when it premiered at the Bush Theatre in 1980.  Kempinski declares that it is a metaphor for his own life.  The metaphor seems at best opaque.

Duet for One unfolds like a tense game of chess between patient and psychiatrist.  As the defining psychological fulcra of Abrahams’ life are exposed by Dr Feldmann, a series of resentments develop towards her husband, then her late father, then the psychiatrist himself.

Oliver Cotton as Dr Feldmann in DUET FOR ONE. Credit Robert Day

Belinda Lang is outstanding as Stephanie Abrahams, the anguished artist, bereft of her very life-force, her violin.   Her performance is beautifully balanced and portrays the pitching and tossing of Abrahams’ state of mind with great understanding.  Her body language is all there, from the vibration building her body as she fights to control her anger, to the locked-in frustration expressed in the exercising of her failing limbs.   Lang is totally engaged with Abrahams’ roller-coaster emotional journey.

Kempinski has written Dr Feldmann as a hint of a stereotype, the Viennese sage of the mind, and indeed Abrahams in an angry mood calls him a “mid-European guru” with a “phoney German accent”.  But Oliver Cotton brings out the full complexity of this role, depicting Feldmann as wise, sympathetic and supportive, but realistic, with commitment to his calling and with strong moral standing.  Cotton is a master of dramatic tension and, crucial in this part, knows how to really act the silences.   As the psychiatrist, there is a lot of listening.  The dramatic hiatuses quiver with tension and one can almost feel the psychiatrist’s brain at work.

Oliver Cotton as Dr Feldmann in DUET FOR ONE. Credit Robert Day

We first see Stephanie Abrahams, successful violinist, house in St John’s Wood, another in Tuscany, proud … but hiding that she is frightened to face a future of failing faculties.  She “gets low”, but baulks at Feldmann calling it depression.  “It’s creeping bloody paralysis”.  However, when Feldmann asks whether she had ever contemplated suicide, she admits to “flashes”.  He prescribes antidepressants, but she leaves thinking that it was rather perfunctory.   On her second visit, she feels better and brighter, is trying to be positive, has taken on violin students and is training herself to be he husband’s secretary.  Nevertheless, she admits that the increased energy has also manifested itself in irritability and becomes very snappy, sharp and sarcastic with Feldmann.

And so the pattern repeats with subsequent visits, although the progression is steadily downward, and we see the gradual disintegration of her spirit.  But along the way, we learn of the major influences on her life, her supportive mother who died when she was six years old, her artisan chocolatier father who begrudged her violin lessons, and her musician husband with whom she had a “fairy story” romance, and married after six weeks following a passionate coup de foudre first meeting.

For Abrahams, music is a “magic” that “expresses humanity”.  She believes that music is “where they got the idea of God”.  The most abiding passionate love of her life is her violin.  So, when she announces that she has given her violin away, Feldmann is clearly shocked.  She has dismissed all her students, “I’m a performer not a teacher”, and denigrates he husband’s compositions as “pretentious polyphonic shit”.

But by now she is in a highly offensive mood, and more so on her penultimate visit, haggard and bedraggled, she declares that she is “wearing the same knickers as on the last visit”.  She says she has taken an old totter as a lover, and pays him in scrap copper pipe to have sex with her: “he fucks me like a sack”.  Her loss of dignity appals Feldmann and his professional inscrutability cracks.  He angrily explains why she needs to help herself regain herself.  “The purpose of life is life itself”.

This intense emotional see-saw can only be kept in motion by very skilful acting and Lang and Cotton deliver it with consummate skill.

Belinda Lang as Stephanie Abrahams in DUET FOR ONE. Credit Robert Day

This is a subtle and clever piece and the mood of the piece is astutely commented on by the design itself.  Award-winning designer, Lez Brotherston has created a set that is a metaphor for the action.  Feldmann’s consulting room with its tall shelves of books and music recordings speak volumes of his approach it is precise and ordered: it is the deal mind; there are library steps but the primitive sculptures are out of the way on the least accessible shelves.   The room is closed and shuttered off from the world but light is let in only through the shutters.   Ian Scott’s lighting design and John Leonard’s sound design follow the action through the lighting and music plot: adroitly restrained.

Although it is challenging to watch, Duet for One is a beautifully concentrated piece of emotional theatre.  It is shot through with witty lines and some truly funny moments, but at heart it is a searing examination of the human spirt in extremis.

Mark Aspen

October 2017

Photography by Robert Day

From → Drama, Music, Reviews

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