I first became aware of Duet For One when it transferred to the West End from the tiny Bush theatre over 40 years ago. It starred Frances de la Tour, who was at the time married to the writer, Tom Kempinski. I remember being mesmerised by the play and by De La Tour’s powerful presence. Little did I imagine ever being asked to do it myself. Of course, at that time, we all imagined that it was a play about Jacqueline du Pre, the world-famous cellist whose life and career were cut short by multiple sclerosis.
I somehow managed never to see the play again, or the film that was based on it starring Julie Andrews, so it had passed into the annals of vague memory. And then one day, the script arrived with an offer to play the part. Well, I have to admit that it didn’t seem like an attractive proposition. Not the most cheerful of subject matter. As I turned the pages, all I could see were endless long and terrifying speeches. Aaargh, I thought, this is definitely not for me. But then that little voice inside piped up. The one that makes you do so many things you hadn’t intended. The one that says: ‘Coward!’ and isn’t referring to Noel. So I read it again, pretending that I wasn’t actually in it, and it started to speak to me. I could suddenly begin to hear the wonderful dialogue and appreciate the brilliance of the writing. By the third reading I had calmed down and decided that, yes, it could be done, and there could be side benefits for my poor brain. The mere act of learning it might stave off dementia for a start. I can’t pretend that it wasn’t a slog, but, once I had got my head around the idiosyncrasies of syntax employed by my character, I started to fly with it.
Then I discovered that Kempinski had not, in fact, based this play on the actual person of Jacqueline du Pre, merely disguising her by making her a violinist rather than a cellist, but had only used her situation as the basis for a character that was more an expression of his own inner turmoil. That was quite liberating. Suddenly, Stephanie Abrahams, as she is called, seemed to lift from the page. Obviously, I wasn’t going to pretend to be a female Tom Kempinski, but I could think of the character as being more universal.. In fact, she could be almost anybody who has had their self -worth challenged, or who has suffered grief or loss. In fact, this had nothing to do with being a virtuoso violin player and everything to do with being any human being who feels that they are being undermined, be it by illness, unemployment or any kind of rejection. In fact, that means pretty well all of us.
The play takes place in psychiatrists office, where Stephanie has gone, at the behest of her husband (a famous composer…hm..but not Daniel Barenboim of course..). She is hoping for some sort of support, but not expecting to be told that she is clinically depressed. In her mind, she is coping wonderfully well and has made plans for the future, to teach and be more of a help to her husband with his career, now that hers has been terminated. She gets much more than she bargained for and becomes, by turns, puzzled, defensive, livid and grief stricken as the sessions progress. The audience are asked to see things form both her point of view and that of the psychiatrist and to shift there allegiances as they watch and wonder if the doctor is being very clever or, at times, making hideous errors.
This all sounds rather challenging, but fortunately it is also a very funny play. Stephanie’s heightened moods and barbed tongue are written with a great sense of comedy. Kempinski doesn’t muck about and plunges us into the crucial moments of the six sessions that it covers, during which no mood goes unturned and poor Dr Feldman has to negotiate his way through the minefield of her resistance and temperament.
If you have ever been in any kind of counselling or therapy, the play will be of interest. And if you haven’t, it’s almost more interesting to see what goes on behind closed doors. Sometimes it is only with a stranger that we can really dare to be our most intense selves. Few of us would want to burden our loved ones with the full weight of our distress or anger, or are afraid that we will not be loved if all is known. Depression is a lonely place. But the heart of the play is the growing relationship between these two people and by the end it is clear that reaching out to another human being is the most potent path to healing.
Duet For One
3 – 8 September, Theatr Clwyd, 0135 270 1521, www.theatrclwyd.com