Duet For One @ Almeida Theatre, London

cast list
Juliet Stevenson, Henry Goodman

directed by
Matthew Lloyd
Tom Kempinski’s 1980 play Duet for One is a brilliantly written two-hander about an ex-international concert violinist with multiple sclerosis who gets treatment from a psychiatrist to help with her depression.

Tautly directed by Matthew Lloyd and featuring powerful performances from Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman, this is a harrowing but compelling experience, with occasional shafts of humour, which sheds light on both art and pyschotherapy.

Taking place over six sessions of therapy in Dr Feldmann’s treatment room, we see his patient Stephanie Abrahams fluctuating wildly in her moods as he penetrates to the core of her troubled psyche.
When she first arrives in her wheelchair she claims that she is only there because her composer husband thought it would be a good idea, though she herself is sceptical. She makes light of her situation: though she has been depressed about giving up playing the violin, she talks positively of her plans to teach promising young musicians and to work as her husband’s secretary.

The anti-depressants Dr Feldmann gives Stephanie make her ‘hyper’, with plenty of energy but irritable: we sense she is in denial about her true feelings. As the doctor probes deeper, asking questions about her mother who died when she was nine, having given up a promising career as a pianist on marrying Stephanie’s father, who also tried to stop her becoming a musician, and about her childless relationship with her own husband, repressed feelings come spilling out. Stephanie directs her anger towards the doctor, then resorts to childlike sulkiness, and finally finds a new level of self-understanding.

Although inspired by cellist Jacqueline du Pr, Duet for One may also draw on the playwright’s own experiences of therapy for agoraphobia. But what is important is the convincingly intimate relationship which is skilfully built up between Dr Feldmann and Stephanie, so that a real sense of claustrophobic intensity develops. To start with she does most of the talking, but later he reveals himself more as he shows an unexpected passion for his professional ideals. Kempinski may project an overly affirmative view of psychiatry but the ambiguous ending leaves open its effectiveness here.

Stevenson gives a masterclass of acting without ever making us feel she is putting on a performance, as she moves naturally through a kaleidoscope of emotions, from ecstatic to suicidal. Physically she suggests with her clenched hands the insidious creeping paralysis of MS, occasionally standing up before falling, while presenting a moving portrait of a highly talented artist who finds it difficult to live without her vocation.

Goodman may have the supporting role to the virtuoso, but he fulfils it superbly. In a sense he has a more difficult part because early on he has to listen intently with an almost inscrutable facial expression, with just a few clues as to what he is thinking. But as well as showing his Teutonic pedantry and comic eccentricity, he successfully conveys the man’s essential humanity.

Lez Brotherston’s impressively detailed design, with its wall-lined books, CDs, cassettes and records, sets the scene nicely for this professional liaison which becomes extremely personal, while the playing of Bach’s sublime sonatas and partitas for solo violin between scenes adds to the ambience.

After more than two hours of this emotionally draining but deeply rewarding play we feel we have been on a real journey, in which a solo performance has become a duet for two.

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