Until 1 August 2009
Director – Matthew Lloyd
Designer – Lez Brotherston
Lighting – Jason Taylor
There’s a built-in mystery about psychotherapy that benefits a play like Duet for One. Diving into the unconscious is an exciting, risk-filled exploration that’s bound to uncover hidden demons. Finding out where the bodies are buried never ceases to create a frisson. But on the opposing side, this exploration is mostly of interest to the patient, not to outside observers. Psychotherapy is solipsistic. We have our own diving expeditions to go on, never mind a third party’s. Duet for One needed a bit of extra insurance, and it got it. When Tom Kempinski’s two-character drama first appeared in 1980, a guilty element of voyeurism helped fuel its success. The principal character is a famous musician sidelined by a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. All of England knew that she was a stand-in for the great cellist Jacqueline du Pre, whose career was tragically cut short by the same disease; she succumbed from it in 1987 at the age of forty-two.
I wondered in advance if poking into the imagined anguish of du Pre wasn’t cheap and unfair, even now. But the actress Juliet Stevenson has been acclaimed in the du Pre role (her character has been renamed Stephanie Abrahams and plays the violin), so I went. Stevenson, armed with a patrician accent, billowy blonde coif, and flashing outbursts of emotion, certainly delivers a star turn. Confined to a wheelchair the entire evening, except for a handful of tense moments when she attempts to stand or walk, Stephanie talks continuously for almost three hours. Her stance toward her disease is defiant, as it is toward psychotherapy. She doesn’t believe in it; her disdain never drops away. She’s only arrived at the office of Dr. Alfred Feldman, she informs him, because her husband, an eminent composer, urges her to. The only reason he has is that Stephanie tends to “feel rather low” (du Pre was married to an eminent conductor, Daniel Barenboim, who isn’t a composer).
Getting behind the mask of feeling low is the whole thrust of the play. I love music and I’m curious about psychiatry, but in my mind’s eye I foresaw a predictable trajectory. The course of couch therapy isn’t mapped out as neatly as that of dying – we don’t have five stages that follow in sequence from denial to acceptance – but every patient resists at first, lashes out with irritation and anger, blames the doctor and calls him a fraud, gives way to tears as fear begins to surface from the depths, and struggles with the tangled yarn of the subconscious, not to mention the powerful forces it hides behind locked doors and sealed chambers. Duet for One travels through this territory with verbal skill; it’s a superior West End entertainment. I can see why critics respect it, even if I found myself slumping in my seat as the evening wore on. Three hours of unrelieved dialogue is a long time.
The best compliment I can pay is that Kempinski doesn’t dumb therapy down. Henry Goodman, as the therapist, adopts a German accent a la Freud, but he doesn’t offer a caricature. His primary role may be to listen, but Feldman also takes an active part in trying to rescue Stephanie from lurking dangers that she barely acknowledges. Suicide is mentioned and lightly dismissed on her first visit. Feldman doesn’t take it lightly, however, and by the end, suicide looms as Stephanie’s last and only trump card unless her psychiatrist can find an alternative. One sees the crisis coming from a mile away, but the playwright handles it with a single deft and surprising line that brings the curtain down – I won’t give the line away. In the middle of this dark arc, Feldman mounts a rousing (and overly melodramatic) speech on the purpose of life. His ultimate point, that life itself is the purpose of life, feels like the play’s weakest fracture point. One doubts that any real-life psychiatrist ever said such a thing. And what does it really mean to say that the purpose of life is life itself? After all, the reverse is nonsense. One can’t say that life isn’t the purpose of life.
This revival originated at the esteemed Almeida Theatre, a fringe venue associated with Harold Pinter and for a long time the source of good material that goes on to have a life at the West End. Duet for One is surprisingly conventional for an Almeida offering. It’s vulnerable to the accusation that it’s just a well made play. God knows the genre lives on forever, especially in London, with its unflagging appetite for middle-brow dramas. I happily pull a chair up to the table, yet in this case Duet for One proved fatally weak. The therapeutic ideal for Freud was that each patient, led on an internal odyssey, would serve as his own romantic hero, questing for truth in the underworld. At the end of the quest, the hero would emerge into the light of day with a cure. Kempinski adheres to this ideal, which is now tattered and outdated. Freud achieved too few cures for all his pains, and by now the rise of drugs like Prozac has outstripped the expensive, arduous, elitist path of psychoanalysis. Stephanie doesn’t believe in the possibility of being helped, and we in the audience find ourselves buying into it out of faith and romantic wish-fulfillment.
Actually, I’m an outlier on this point. I do subscribe to the hunt for inner demons as a road to cures. But I’m also a realist, and beyond giving Stephanie an antidepressant and a sympathetic ear, Dr. Feldman turns into an improbable hero. It would be wonderful to talk to him at two hundred pounds a session, but then, even with a deep fund of solipsism, who has that kind of spare cash and time to burn?