The Theatreguide.London Review
first at the Almeida; scroll down for return visit to the West End
Almeida: Tom Kempinski's 1980 two-hander is a duel of wits and passions between a psychiatrist convinced his patient is in deep danger and the patient barricaded behind a high wall of denial. Though its psychiatry and dramaturgy are occasionally questionable, there is no doubt that it is tensely engrossing and a marvellous vehicle for two strong and subtle actors.
And Matthew Lloyd's new production finds two such remarkable performers in Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman, skilfully guided by their director to characterisations that hold and convince, carrying the play over its occasional awkward patch.
Inspired by the well-known case of a brilliant musician struck down by debilitating disease, Kempinski creates Stephanie Abrahams, concert violinist whose multiple sclerosis has snatched the violin out of her hands and put her in a wheelchair.
She comes to Dr. Feldman for what she sees as a mild and perfectly understandable depression, but he spots considerably darker forces at work and fears that she is much closer to suicide than she can consciously imagine. The play consists of his attempts to push her toward acknowledging her real near-despair, as the first step toward learning to cope with it.
To get some small objections out of the way, it is inevitable that at least the first half of the play will be devoted to Stephanie's denial, and that the first act climax will be the crumbling of her defences, and you could probably predict her curtain line without even seeing the play. And, to speed things along dramatically and create some strong scenes, Kempinski has the psychiatrist constantly changing techniques, some of them clinically and ethically dubious.
But the job of a production is to paper over those cracks and allow the play's strengths - in the characterisations themselves and in the drama of the clash between them - to dominate. For that you need actors who can play subtext - a Stephanie who can be strong and cheerful and still let you catch just the briefest glimpses of something scarier beneath, and a Feldman whose silences can speak volumes.
It can hardly be a surprise that Juliet Stevenson is wonderful. I remembered from nearly 30 years ago that Stephanie spent much of the play in denial - what I had forgotten (or never seen before) was the passion in her denial. By fighting so hard to assert her mental and spiritual health, Stevenson lets us understand that a greater fight - against acknowledging her demons - is really going on, and that every momentary victory over the psychiatrist is actually a defeat.
Stevenson makes this not just a story of a woman learning to deal with pains to come, but a woman visibly in constant emotional pain even at her seeming cheeriest.
In all previous productions I've seen, Dr. Feldman seemed more a technical device - you need someone there for Stephanie to bounce off - than a real character. But Henry Goodman brings him alive and makes his story almost as central as hers. Goodman finds not only all the humour in the man, but also all the passion - his doctor sees the mental danger his patient is in, even if we at first don't, and really fears for her.
From the start, he is fighting for her life even if she isn't, and Goodman makes the man's commitment and determination dramatically alive. Thanks to Goodman and director Lloyd, this is no longer (as it has always seemed) a one-character-plus-straight-man play, but a real, evenly-matched two-hander.
If you don't know the play at all, you're in for a powerful and exciting evening. And if you have seen it before, you will find this production deepening and enriching it in ways that will make it fresh. And, of course, you will get to watch two superb actors playing at the top of their game.
Vaudeville: Returning to this production of Tom Kempinski's play as it transfers to the West End underlines two things about it - that Kempinski's ideas about psychiatry and clinical methods are complete tosh, and that that doesn't matter, because it allows him to create strong characters and gripping drama.
It is striking that in a play in which both characters remain seated 90% of the time, and the most visually exciting moment comes when one falls down (and gets up unhurt), the expression of passions and exchange of ideas hold us and involve us throughout.
A reminder: a gifted violinist struck by multiple sclerosis visits a psychiatrist for her inevitable depression. He sees that it goes much deeper than she'll admit, and the play follows his attempts to push her to a recognition of how mentally fragile she is, as a start toward learning to cope.
And yes, to keep things moving Kempinski makes the shrink change methods every few minutes, now irritatingly silent, now putting ideas into her head. But perhaps you only notice that on a repeat visit.
What dominates the play is the battle of wills, between a patient committed to the belief that she's doing pretty well under the circumstances, and a doctor who knows he must destroy that confidence in order to help her.
And as I said in my original review, you could not ask for two stronger opponents than Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman. Reread what I said above in my praise of them - none of their subtlety or power has been lost in the transfer to a larger theatre.
I do want to re-emphasise what a major contribution director Matthew Lloyd and actor Henry Goodman have made by turning the psychiatrist from a mere feed and plot device to an equal partner in the duologue.
Other productions I've seen all made the play about the patient, her fight to preserve her denial and her first steps toward coping when it collapsed. Lloyd and Goodman - and, one must add, Stevenson, in generously giving up part of the spotlight - have for the first time made the doctor a real character, a man who knows the high stakes they are playing for and who invests all his skill and passion in the fight.
It is my highest praise of this production that you will find yourself watching Goodman as much as Stevenson, catching all the nuances of his performance as much as hers and, most importantly, feeling the depth of his character's emotional journey as fully as hers.
In short, some of the best acting - by both of the performers - you're likely to see in London this or any year.
Return to Theatreguide.London home page.
Review - Duet for One - Almeida & Vaudeville 2009