When first seen at the Bush in 1980, Tom Kempinski’s Duet For One had many poignant associations. The violinist confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis suggested the plight of the cellist Jacqueline du Pré (who died in 1987), while also, as played in an award-winning performance by the playwright’s then wife, Frances de la Tour, conveying Kempinski’s frustrations as a musician, actor and agoraphobic.
Nearly 30 years on, Matthew Lloyd’s beautifully judged revival at the Almeida, while not disguising the play’s flaws, can be seen more simply as a soul-baring confrontation between Juliet Stevenson’s defiant, bitter and angry Stephanie Abrahams and Henry Goodman’s taciturn German psychiatrist Dr Feldmann. The metaphor of a world without music is harrowingly implied in Stephanie’s disavowal of her calling.
Stevenson glides on in her wheelchair as if floating. Feldmann’s study looks like the Freud Museum, with its couch covered in a red blanket. The bookshelves are stacked with tapes and vinyl records, a reminder of the play’s vintage, and the scenes are punctuated with bursts of Nathan Milstein playing a Bach violin sonata.
A distinction is made between psychoanalysis and psychiatry as therapy, which is what Feldmann offers. While Goodman fulfils his role patiently, investing his inscrutable silences with the slightest of grunts and tics, there is not enough interaction to create sustained drama. So something really weird happens with Stephanie.
Driven to the brink of suicide, she follows the revelation that she’s given up on her students and the “post-modern gibberish” written by her composer husband, whom we never see, with the ultimate shocker that she’s also given away her violin.
She’s still not done. Suddenly slatternly, she talks of having rough sex with a scrap metal merchant who is turned on by her disability. It is a tribute to Stevenson’s rare talent that she can make this unlikely outburst sound both disturbing and convincing.
Coming to terms with not playing the violin is traced back to the death of her musician mother, but the psychology of the role strikes me as over-assembled. It was her husband who suggested she visit Feldmann, but the special relationship that was forged in the Beethoven they once played together doesn’t exist at all in her confessions until she dismantles it.
Still, the meetings are played with wit and deftness by both actors. On Stephanie’s first visit she demonstrates how the illness can strike unbidden; Stevenson walks across the room and collapses, as alarming a stage fall as Othello’s sudden epilepsy, or Hirst’s cataleptic fit in Pinter’s No Man’s Land.
The performance, rather than the play, leaves room for the possibility of a fresh start. Stephanie has finally accepted that she has to survive without music and that this will be her last visit. But neither proposition seems likely. And is Feldmann even crossing his own new frontier in loading his “same time next week” parting shot with a twinkle of dependency? A fitting musical caesura, for sure.
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