Duet for One
Octagon Theatre Bolton
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
In the Octagon's programme, Kempinski writes, "Duet for One is not actually about Jacqueline du Pré. Obviously she sparked the idea... but the play is actually about me. It is a metaphor for my emotional paralysis."
However there are more than just a few sparks of the famous cellist in the outline of the life of his character Stephanie Abrahams, a former concert violinist who, at 42, the age at which du Pré died, is confined to a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis. She also, like du Pré, is married to a renowned composer, David Liebermann (not a million miles away from Daniel Barenboim), whose work she variously describes as "genius" or "his postmodern gibberish", depending on her mood.
The play is a series of imagined therapy sessions with Dr Alfred Feldmann at the request of her husband, although she won't admit that there is anything wrong with her. Her attitude towards her therapist is, for the most part, condescending and arrogant, behaving like a spoilt child and dismissing anything he suggests about how she is feeling. While she is ill and disabled, it is very difficult to have sympathy for her character for very long.
Feldmann is calm and measured throughout, until eventually he tells her some home truths to snap her out of her self-obsession and get her to examine her feelings and behaviour before it is too late.
The construction of the play is a bit creaky and obvious and there are plenty of things that happen that don't really seem convincing, but it is really all about the conversations between the two characters, which are often fascinating. It is an interrogation play, in which one character gets the other to open up and discover or reveal things about herself that have remained hidden.
Elizabeth Newman's simple and tightly-focussed production is performed extremely well by two experienced actors who have both given memorable performances on this stage before: Rob Edwards and Clare Foster.
It is performed on a stage designed by Amanda Stoodley that contains objects under transparent panels which are lit at specific moments between scenes, but as these could only be seen clearly from the balcony I've no idea what the significance of these is (an identical design idea has been used before at the Octagon).
I'm not convinced about the in-the-round configuration as, although the characters shift positions between scenes, the play is so static that a large part of the audience will be looking only at the back of one character for the whole of some scenes.
It isn't a play that I was entirely convinced by, but it kept my attention and interest for the whole two hours and left me with some things to think about. It's the best production I've seen yet directed by Newman, and the best homegrown production at the Octagon for a good twelve months.
This play is paired, with the same cast and director, with Kempinski's autobiographical Separation which opens next week to run alongside this production.
Reviewer: David Chadderton