REVIEW: Duet For One
Posted by News Editor
Posted in News
Review: Duet For One, Salisbury Playhouse
How do you go on living when the thing that gave your life most meaning is suddenly ripped away from you?
This is the dilemma facing Stephanie Abrahams (Belinda Lang), a hugely successful violinist whose diagnosis of multiple sclerosis has robbed her not only of her career and the ability to play her instrument, but also of the joy that comes from making music, a joy that was the mainstay of her life.
Already using a wheelchair, but not yet entirely confined to it, she appears in the consulting room of psychiatrist Dr Feldmann (Jonathan Coy), largely at her husband’s suggestion.
When we meet her first, Stephanie appears to be coping quite well. She takes considerable pride in her plans to reinvent herself as a music teacher and to become her composer husband’s secretary.
She is not entirely sure why she needs to see a psychiatrist at all. But Feldman immediately sees through the seemingly calm waters to the maelstrom beneath – or does he actually create that maelstrom?
With his slight German accent, his Jewish name and his brooding silences, this psychiatrist is not only something of a cliché himself, he is a pedlar of clichés:
A woman with no children must, by definition, be unfulfilled. The real root of Stephanie’s problems must lie in an unsatisfactory relationship with her father. As it was music that brought Stephanie and her husband together, its absence must mean that she fears that he will now leave her.
With such chauvinist claptrap flying around, you can’t help feeling that Stephanie would have been better off seeing a female psychiatrist.
But Feldmann is, of course, a mouthpiece of the author and he is allowed to be right. In the course of the evening, the veneer is stripped from Stephanie’s life and she is forced to confront some of its murkier realities, in the hope that this will enable her to face the uncertainties of what lies ahead.
Although the play is not without humour, this doesn’t make for a comfortable evening’s viewing, but it is a compelling and moving piece.
Who could fail to be touched by the mental and physical deterioration of a woman whose main source of joy has been wrenched from her by the disease that will ultimately kill her?
Yet Stephanie is a good illustration of the fact that the idea that suffering brings out the best in people – turning them into angels of patience and fortitude – is a complete myth.
Arrogant, selfish and contemptuous of those with lesser talents than her own, she probably wasn’t very nice to know before MS struck, and she certainly isn’t very nice now.
MS has released a rage in her that she could disguise when she was well, but which she cannot hide now – and Feldman gets the full force of it. As he pokes away at the parts of her life which she thought were fine, her hostility to him increases, as does her despair.
In an admirable performance, Belinda Lang is utterly convincing as the fragile but waspish Stephanie. She deftly handles her character’s gradual descent from smartly-dressed woman making light of her circumstances with sardonic wit to a much nastier person in grubby sweatpants and unwashed knickers, the ugly side of her nature laid bare, and even her upper-class accent slipping to reveal her humble origins and the falseness of the persona she has created for herself.
Feldmann’s role is largely to interject the odd enigmatic comment or irritating question that will provoke his client into a new tirade, usually against him, but gradually also revealing uncomfortable truths about her life, as he listens in silence.
As such, Jonathan Coy has little scripted material to work with. However, his silences speak volumes, his concentration is absolute, and on the one occasion when Feldmann does let rip, turning on Stephanie to explain why, for him, suicide is no joke and rebuking her for her childish taunts, his performance is unforgettable.
Feldmann’s quiet conviction that all life is worth living, and that progress towards finding a meaning for our existence can be made when we have faced up to our basest fears and explored the darker corners of our lives is, mercifully, the message we take away from a piece that can ultimately have no happy ending.