Duet for One

Tom Kempinski

Malvern Festival Theatre

From 06 November 2017 to 11 November 2017

Review by G.D.Mills

As Zoe Williams in The Guardian observes, “what looks like an easy thing to hang a plot on—a therapist’s couch—is actually the hardest thing imaginable, a room in which no action can happen, but everything must scintillate.”

Nevertheless, Tom Kempinski’s two-hander, in which an MS sufferer (Belinda Lang) receives treatment at the hands of psychiatrist (Oliver Cotton), coruscates in all kinds of unexpected ways. The naturalistic setting is a sumptuous, book-lined study in which a severe looking Teutonic shrink, who subscribes to the Viennese school of psychotherapy, attempts to lift the depression of a brilliant musician who is slowly being stripped of everything she holds dear.

Feldman is at first inscrutable. He appears to be entirely detached, perhaps even uncaring. He throws out gnomic observations in a thick German accent. He hovers precariously on the brink of cliché. Over a series of sessions, Feldman’s gravid silences are interspersed with Stephanie’s icy, self-lacerating monologues, which grow in despair as she slides towards extinction.

Feldman, still as a statue, watches the sylphlike Stephanie shoot around the room on her motorized wheelchair in riled response to his painful line of questioning. Layer by layer he peels away her protective casing to reveal a soul quivering with rage and fear: “there's no God, you know, Dr Feldmann, but I know where they got the idea; they got it from music... I can never never play the the the violin again! Never never never never never again.”

Stephanie’s degeneration is convincingly captured. Over the six sessions, she transforms from a woman poised and ready for battle to one half-way ravaged by the disease's inexorable progress. My father, a physiotherapist who has worked with MS sufferers over two decades, noted (perhaps with the exception of her over-careful falls) the physical realism of Lang’s performance.

Oliver Cotton’s Feldman, meanwhile, slowly emerges from the realm of Freudian cliché to become a distinctive figure in his own right. Faced with Stephanie’s implacable despair, his stony façade cracks open to reveal a man who has bled, perhaps even to an heroic degree, for every patient he’s ever worked with. In an explosive monologue, he practically implores her to take up battle once again; "you say you had your only purpose, and now it is gone forever, and the tree of life has more than merely one wretched apple on it, believe me. Reach! Pick. No supermarket has such a choice of wares believe me."

“But there wasn’t a proper ending,” I heard a man say to his wife as we shuffled towards the exit. Yet MS isn’t a problem to which there is a proper ending—psychologically, spiritually, medically, and Kempinski quite rightly leaves the play hanging on a suitably ambivalent note.

Intense, personal and short, I can’t help thinking this play would work better in an intimate, studio setting.  Small caveats aside, this is vital, searing theatre.