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Duet for One

Tom Kempinski
An Almeida Theatre Production
Vaudeville Theatre
(2009)

Publicity photo

When renowned ex-violinist Stephanie Abrahams thumps her chest it echoes through the office of her psychiatrist. Robbed of her musical career by a progressive disability, Abrahams' descent toward spiritual and physical infirmity is portrayed inimitably by Juliet Stevenson, who captures each lapse, spasm and temper as if her life depended on it.

It is the brooding and idiomatic psychiatrist Dr Feldman (Henry Goodman) who is asked to halt Abrahams' slide down a suicidal slope. Feldman's office is that of a cultured inquisitor: an ornate Freudian couch, soothing colours and metres of well-ordered books, records and CDs. Poignantly, the music of Abrahams herself rests on a shelf, reluctantly gathering dust. Light beams in through blinded windows and suggests, choicely, both twilight and dawn. Lez Brotherston's design has caught something of fertility and demise at once. Things grow and die here: fear, realisation, antagonism.

The conversations between Doctor and patient are jarring, inconsistent and fickle, like a tennis match wherein each player plays the ball back each time with a new, larger, more tightly-strung racket. There is no incremental or fluid prescription here; analysis and treatment are forceful, disjointed and expertly administered by this on-song duet.

Feldman's efforts to instil resolve within Abrahams, and to elucidate the joyousness of overcoming adversity, are earnest and impassioned, and reveal, perhaps, traces of his own misfortune and courage. But they are also slightly sermonic and hyperbolic, a tone which noticeably jars against Abrahams' more authentic rendering of pain. Feldman cites displays of compassion for others as a potential tonic, emphasising the medicinal qualities of jettisoning the ego. To this, and to most of Feldman's more preachy and anecdotal moments, Abrahams' sentiment is "I think that's all balls."

The dual between Feldman and Abrahams is fit for an amphitheatre. Feldman undertakes a crabwise and candid navigation of this woman's suffering. Abrahams' counter-offenses are skilled and vehement. Her weapons are defiance, sarcasm and wit; bite, bark and reckless driving. At one point she tries to run Feldman over. Ultimately though, the only victories available are pyrrhic.

Between the trenches a feminist chord resonates. Men are shown as impediments: Abrahams' father tried to bully her into taking on a 'real' job; her husband's will, though absent theatrically, is firm and controlling, and his music, still free to roam and flourish, is a painful and crippling thorn in her side. Multiple Sclerosis, with its manipulative and restrictive menace, strikes as a metaphor for the fettered and hindered female.

The notions of falsity, fraud and detection all recur, either as incidental comments or larger ideas. Abrahams fakes climaxes with a metal collector and declares that during her career on stage she was simply an image. She confesses to despising her husband's music, questions Feldman's sincerity and, when prompted, says that she would like to be a detective, so to "look behind things." Thematic echoes of Freud's layered model of the psyche encase the play like wallpaper. The effect is a well-handled, if not significantly altering, exposition of the layered composition of life and its parts.

A sartorial degradation occurs in harmony with Abrahams' inner struggle. Her clothes lose their formality as her manners grow savage and crude. She talks about sexual encounters frankly and, in an effort to rile Feldman, she openly and confrontationally scratches her crotch. This side of her demise is less convincing, even if we concede the erratic nature of her illness. Her fits of swearing and abuse are too removed from her more constant characteristics of sarcasm, irony and careful bitterness. The self implodes, but not like this.

By her final visit, however, there is a return to resigned serenity. Abrahams cannot reconcile herself to her new condition. Her means to recovery and salvation have been used up - it was music that allowed her to bear the death of her mother as a young girl, and now, without it, she is absent and defeated. "Playing the violin it's not work, or a way of life. It's where I live."

With MS as her landlord Abrahams is insolubly homeless. As the light comes down just after Feldman's final rallying call, Abrahams is poised before the door of his office - her exit. It is a threshold, a brink between resignation and resilience. It is where she now lives.

Until August 1st

Philip Fisher reviewed the original production at the Almeida and John Johnson reiewed the touring production at Milton Keynes

Reviewer: Ben Aitken