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Duet for One

by on 17 February 2023

Silent Music

Duet for One

by Tom Kempinski

OT Theatre Productions at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until 18th March

Review by Steve Mackrell

Tom Kempinski’s Duet for One premiered at the Bush Theatre in 1980 and was followed by a successful run in the West End with Kempinski’s then wife, Frances de la Tour, in the cast.  It was subsequently revived at the Almeida Theatre in 2009, again followed by a West End transfer, this time with Juliet Stevenson. 

Duet for One is, in fact, an affectionate homage to the world renowned cellist Jacqueline de Pre, who died prematurely aged 42 in 1987.  She had made her debut as a cellist when aged sixteen, at the Wigmore Hall, following which her career blossomed, and she came to be regarded as one of the greatest cellists of the 20th Century.  By 1969 she was experiencing numbness in her hands and feet and was subsequently diagnosed in 1973 with multiple sclerosis.  Unfortunately, this was an aggressive form of the disease and, fourteen years later, it was to take her life … with suggestions she may have taken a lethal injection in an assisted suicide.

In Kempinski’s play, Jacqueline de Pre, the cellist, becomes Stephanie Abrahams (Tara Fitzgerald), a renowned classical violinist, who becomes increasingly unable to play due to a diagnosis of MS.  The play, a two-hander, basically follows a series of therapy sessions between the illness-stricken violinist and her psychiatrist, Dr Feldmann (Maureen Beattie).

Duet for One is already an established classic and hence the question arises – is another revival timely?  On the evidence of this new production, directed by Richard Beecham, the answer is absolutely, yes.  Firstly, it remains a skilful piece of writing, rich in language, provocative in argument and contains many ironic and amusing lines.  The themes discussed in the play still resonate, some forty years later, and remain highly relevant and compelling.  One of the most innovative changes in this new production, is the introduction of live music, in this case played by a solo violinist (Gabriela Opacka-Boccadoro or Kath Roberts).  Unlike pre-recorded music, live music is much more evocative, heightening the mood and atmosphere of the drama.  It can also underscore the dialogue and enhance the actor’s timing and spontaneity.  Particularly poignant were the brief scenes that preceded the therapy sessions, where the MS stricken patient looks up at the balcony where the violinist is playing … … seeing an image of her former violin-playing self.

As for the two performers, both are totally spellbinding.  The fascination of the play lies in the development of the characters as we watch their progress through a series of six therapy sessions.  In the early stages of the illness, Tara Fitzgerald’s violinist is confident, almost arrogant, and eager to dismiss the problems caused by her newly diagnosed illness.  As the therapy progresses, fundamental changes start affecting her behaviour as her early bravado becomes increasingly compromised, and as she recognises the devastation her debilitating illness will have on her career.  As she starts to accept the desperation of her plight, mood changes occur, swinging from defensive to aggressive, and even her language changes descending into words of anger and despair.  For Tara Fitzgerald, this is a powder-keg performance, bursting with explosives. 

Equally compelling is Maureen Beattie’s psychiatrist, a quiet interrogator, not easily ruffled, and full of gentle philosophy.  Steely silences give way to polite concern as she calmly listens to the increasing desperation of her patient’s plight.  Her icy expression and engaging stare are riveting as she explores her patient’s mind and desperate thoughts of suicide.  This is a finely nuanced performance, especially when transforming from polite listener to active participant.  Of course, effective drama depends on conflict, which is here in bundles, with explosive questions and exchanges, all excellently argued between the two protagonists. 

Directed by Richard Beecham, this production is brisk and well-paced.  His use of significant pauses is both bold and effective – there were some wonderfully long pauses used to great dramatic effect.  Design, by Simon Kenny, consists of a simple round podium – a virtual bullring – designed for two adversaries to face-off from their respective armchairs.  The podium revolved imperceptibly throughout the performance to allow the audience full vision of the two characters and their facial expressions.

As a footnote to the production, it was interesting that in previous versions of this two-hander, the parts have been played as female musician, male psychiatrist and hence, I was left wondering, in this adaptation did the change to two females affect the dynamic?  Perhaps not, and one could even argue that women are generally more open when talking to each other in such situations.  On the other hand, there is a point in the script where the psychiatrist suddenly bursts into anger – indeed, an anger more suited to a male reaction rather than a female.  A minor issue, perhaps, and certainly not one to detract from the enjoyment of this engrossing adaptation

This tale of adversity (and hope), involving the premature loss of a young and successful talent falling victim to a debilitating illness, makes for a fascinating confrontation between these two beautifully observed characters.  For some, however, it would seem that being bereft of the ability to create art, in this case the magic of music, means there’s little purpose left to life.

An absolute masterclass of theatre.

Steve Mackrell, February 2023

Photography by Helen Murray

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