Forty years after he wrote “Duet For One”, Tom Kempinski has finally revealed that his play has nothing whatsoever to do with Jacqueline du Pre. His central character, Stephanie, is a brilliant violinist whose stellar career has been closed down by the onslaught of Multiple Sclerosis. The charismatic cellist suffered the same fate. So audiences drew their own conclusions. But in his chirpy programme note, Kempinski lays the long-standing rumour to rest. The widely held belief is simply not true. The play is in fact an examination of his own state of mind.
“A series of unfortunate events, starting at the beginning of WWII – separations, deaths, evacuations, – resulted in me having a badly damaged personality, including depression, rage and anxiety. I felt I had to suppress them, for I believed these feelings were a danger to my family. So, the play is a metaphor for me supressing (i.e. paralysing) my feelings, by deadly denial of what is my actual, inner life.”
So now we can see “Duet For One” with fresh, uncluttered, eyes…though the programme still sports photos of Jacqueline du Pre.
We are in the study of a German psychiatrist, Doctor Feldmann. The walls are lined with CDs and LPs of classical music. His latest client, Stephanie, arrives and we spend the best part of two hours observing their psychological sparring.
Initially, Belinda Lang plays the patient as a determinedly optimistic woman who is convinced she can cope with her fate. Oliver Cotton is much gloomier as the reticent doctor. She rabbits on animatedly about how well she is doing and he brusquely interrupts. “Do you ever think about suicide? Take these tablets and come back in two weeks”.
The currents and eddies of their consultations are fascinating, but the river never reaches the sea.
She is proud of her past career. She was a concert soloist at 13 and won the Vienna International. And now she wants to pour her soul into her students.
But he keeps unsettling her with irritating, psychiatrist questions about her relationships with her parents and partner. Did she realise her life story is in parallel with her mother’s? If it was music that brought her husband into her life, now she can no longer play, may the relationship not die? Personally, I wanted to clamber onto the stage and thump him.
They are clearly never going to get on. Her artistic ‘being’ leads her to believe that “music is the purist expression of humanity”; whilst all he can manage is the reductionist view that “the purpose of life … is life itself”. No wonder they are still at odds at the final curtain.
If Kempinski was writing the play today, the final curtain would come much earlier; and I suspect there would be a clearer through-line to the play. Most modern audiences would appreciate that. Instead we can only marvel at the actors’ abilities. Belinda Lang has 80% of the lines and gives us an absolutely admirable performance of a woman in a wheel chair who refuses to be off her trolley. Oliver Cotton applies great ‘moment’ to his interjections and, when occasionally called upon to elaborate, he is riveting; in a scientific sort of way.
It’s a famous play and I was grateful for the fresh opportunity to see it…and to see it so perfectly performed. But I’m not sure I can entirely comprehend the connection between Tom Kempinski’s programme note and the play he consequently wrote.