This blog post was originally published to www.ruthmillington.co.uk, click to explore Ruth’s brilliant Arts & Culture blog based in Birmingham.
Following an acclaimed run in London’s West End, Tom Kempinski’s multi-award-winning play Duet for One is now on tour. I was lucky enough to be able to catch it at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, starring Belinda Lang (2point4 Children, Second Thoughts) and Jonathan Coy (Downton Abbey, Rumpole, Collateral & Endeavour).
Here’s what I thought of this compelling and powerfully poignant production, with just two characters.
Duet for One follows the journey of Stephanie Abrahams, a renowned concert violinist, whose life centres around music. Suddenly struck with Multiple Sclerosis, she is left unable to play her beloved instrument. On her husband’s advice, she seeks help from psychiatrist Dr Feldmann, in order that he might help her ‘cope’ with the diagnosis and face a future without music.
As a brilliant concert violinist, Stephanie Abrahams is a witty and formidable woman. She has a no-bullshit attitude towards her psychiatrist’s attempts to crack her impenetrable exterior and grapple with the demons she refuses to acknowledge.
But make no mistake: this is not a sombre, passive play. At times crushing, often funny and truly powerful, it is at once tongue-and-cheek portrayal of life with debilitating illness, and a tribute to the resilience of human nature.
Moving in its minimalism
The play opens in the plush green office of Dr Feldmann (Jonathon Coy), who is shortly joined by Stephanie Abrahams (Belinda Lang) for their first meeting, surrounded by a wall of records: a clear signifier for the protagonist’s central love affair.
Classical music is played sparingly between each scene, and there could have been more use of this integral component. The one moment when Dr Feldmann plays Abrahams’ own music to her is deeply emotional.
The set is stripped-down, marked by an inventive use of lighting to differentiate each new scene, signifying another meeting between them. With just two characters, one set and each scene maintaining the same context, the play is challengingly minimalist, but this merely served to allow Lang and Coy’s spectacular acting to be the focal point.
The complexity of ‘coping’
Lang was a force of nature on the stage: her portrayal illuminated every complexity and nuance of Abrahams’ emotional state, as it evolved throughout the play. Despite often heavy subject matter, I was immediately struck with just how funny her character is: from the offset the audience were laughing along with her feisty, scathing sarcasm and take-no-prisoners attitude towards Feldmann in his honest attempts reckon with her.
In each scene the audience witnessed the progressive unravelling of her deceptively impenetrable exterior, revealing another layer of the mental illness she grapples with. The story is most poignant when she is at her most vulnerable. One of Lang’s stand-out performances was at the close of the first act, when she finally laments the magnitude of her loss explaining:
“Music, Dr Feldmann, is the purest expression of humanity there is.”
Meanwhile, Coy’s portrayal of Feldmann was artfully understated. His timing and reactions to Abrahams’ disclosures were key, allowing the audience to read between the lines in her insistences that she’s “coping”.
In the first act, Lang’s strong performance of Abrahams overpowered Dr Feldmann. However, his character comes alive in the second act. A passionate outburst of anger in response to Abrahams’ continued scathing personal attacks is tempered with a subtle undertone of pleading for Stephanie to take her own condition seriously. This human moment is a striking and revealing contrast to the pragmatic exterior the audience saw prior to this point.
Duet for One is a deeply affecting play that also shows a light-hearted side to tragic circumstances, ultimately with a message of hope and resilience.