Stephanie Abrahams, a brilliant concert violinist, who seemingly has it all, is forced to re-evaluate her life when struck down by an unforeseen tragedy. Faced with a truth too difficult to comprehend she consults psychiatrist Dr Feldmann and through a series of highly charged encounters is led to examine her deepest emotions and finally to consider a future without music.
On the face of it, a play about the emotional, psychological and physical ravages of MS, that uninvited guest which destroys so many lives, doesn’t sound like a recipe for a good night out. But I haven’t stood up to deliver my applause at the end of a show since last January’s The Magic Flute at the Young Vic – and that, Dear Reader, shows just how discriminating I can be when I have to. Those who would accuse me of not knowing what good theatre is should know that I don’t stand up for rubbish – unless its to make a quick exit as soon as the curtain falls on the first act (cough). But you couldn’t have dragged me away from this play during the interval without pointing a gun at my head and threatening to cut off my Bunty subscription – and even then I think I might have taken the risk and stayed put. Sod Bunty – this is good. No, its not good – its fantastic. Rarely have 2 ½ hours in the theatre slipped by so fast as they did last night.
OK, I hold my hands up and state in advance that Juliet Stephenson is very definitely a member of my TWCDNW (They Who Can Do No Wrong) club – for chrissakes, I once saw her play Hedda Gabler (regrettably not in Helsingborg) and make it funny. But if her performance in Duet for One doesn’t win her a double armful of awards, then there is no God. Every nuance, every pause, every look is perfectly judged and slotted into place here and creates an entire jigsaw that glitters like a black diamond. Critics have sometimes been of the opinion that she can overdo the “snot and slobber” during her more emotional moments, but in this piece, every dribble is full of real pain and is completely justified. Particularly “real” is her physicality – the awkward placing of a leg, the fall that you don’t see coming, the hand that stutters as it reaches for a glass.
On the opposite side of the coin is Henry Goodman as Dr. Feldmann, who gives a performance of complete gravitas and calm; even when sitting silent and completely still, he completely inhabits the role and gives it reality. He also displays a great sense of comic timing and the ability to almost throw a line into the air like a piece of invisible thread, then draw it tight like a lasso around his unsuspecting victim. In fact, both Stephenson and Goodman spend the entire evening playing Spider and Fly with each other - but so well do they work together that its never quite certain which is the spider and which the fly at any given moment.
The direction was, frankly, astounding. There’s very little physical action – most of the time he sits in his chair, she opposite him in the wheelchair. By rights, this should become very tiring and very boring extremely quickly. But here’s the genius of it – it doesn’t. It serves only to make the situation more real. I never thought that watching two people sitting down and talking to each other could be so riveting. The direction here is in the glances, the empty silences, the actual lack of physical movement. The only time when I thought the direction slightly forced was during Stephenson’s last big speech, when she hauls herself up out of the wheelchair and, using a walking stick, totters to the bookcase and hangs on to it like grim death. It smacked a little of that “Joan of Arc” moment you find in plays like this – the final denouncement, the valedictory paragraph where everything is wrapped up and tidied away, the rally to battle against dark forces. If I’d been directing, I’d have had Stephenson totter in the other direction and stand looking out of the window, perhaps leaning heavily on the frame, like a prisoner looking through the bars at a golden world she will never inhabit again, turning her back on her jailer yet ensuring that he knows every word is a shot fired in his direction. Dammit, I missed my calling.
The set was wonderful – a scholarly, masculine room with bookshelves that you really wanted to rummage around on. It was beautifully but simply lit, with afternoon light pouring through wooden Venetian blinds onto a parquet floor. Through the window was a hint of a slightly overgrown garden – a wilderness held at bay by reason and logic. It was interesting to note that Stephenson starts the play quite formally dressed in plain shirts and dark trousers but, as her character’s physical condition deteriorates, her clothes became more floral, as if she’s leaving this ordered and tidy world behind and becoming more and more a creature of the primitive jungle outside the room. Oh well, that’s my theory anyway.
What I don’t have a theory for is quite why the audience was so badly behaved during the performance. This is Islington, for chrissakes – people here should be used to going to the theatre. Its not like going to see Oliver! where the majority of the audience think its acceptable to talk to each other, text their friends, sing along or make cooing noises at the pigeon they've brought in under their cloth cap because its got a touch of croup and can't be left in t'loft on its own in t'dark, Moother. Yet one chap was yawning very, very audibly, which is incredibly disrespectful to the actors and bloody annoying for others in the audience. After Stephenson’s first exit, some old cow behind us and somewhere to the left thought it necessary to comment loudly on psychiatric practice – “You shouldn’t touch the patient, you shouldn’t touch the patient, Polly wants a cracker”. OK, I put that last bit in for comic effect. After the interval, during a really quiet scene, some fool in the row behind gleefully started scraping the last dregs of his ice cream out of the tub with the little plastic spoon and making num num num lipsmacking noises like it was Going Home Time at nursery school. Even after I’d shusssssssh’d him loudly (and my shussssssssh’s can get very loud when I choose to make them so), he carried on unconcernedly rattling away in a “Hang on a minute while I just get this very last little bit out” kind of way. Honestly, you can’t take some people anywhere.
What the critics thought:
(I think its worth noting that, desp
ite extensive searching, I couldn’t find a review for this production that didn’t give it less than four stars. Nicholas de Jongh, who hates practically everything and everybody, gave it five. For once, I’m in complete agreement with the man)
Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow in the film version of "Duet for One" - probably a lot sparser on laughs than the Almeida production