“Music… is the purest expression of humanity that there is. It’s magic… Now I will pour my magic into others, who will make my sounds for me”.
Stephanie Abrahams has it all. A glittering career as a world-class violinist. A handsome and successful husband, dubbed ‘the greatest composer of his age’.
When she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, however, her whole world is threatened.
Brand new theatre company Aspect Theatre present their first ever production in the intimate setting of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Attic Theatre – an adaptation of Tom Kempinski’s award-winning play ‘Duet for One’.
Directed by Marc Dugmore, the production is a touching, delicately nuanced and ultimately life-affirming two-hander that follows the journey of a psychiatrist and his patient, who is struggling to come to terms with a life-changing diagnosis that leaves her unable to continue doing the thing she loves.
Over the course of six psychiatry sessions, Dr Feldmann probes Stephanie through sensitive yet forceful questioning, encouraging her to address her new-found fears and re-evaluate her life, in order that she might be injected with a fiercer passion for living as full and satisfying a life as she would otherwise have done.
Affecting around 164 people for every 100,000 in England, multiple sclerosis is a condition in which the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are damaged, resulting in a range of symptoms. Handled very respectfully in the capable hands of director Dugmore, the production offers a compelling look into the physical, mental and emotional effects upon character Stephanie Abrahams, confronting the dark unconscious forces that threaten to take hold of her, whilst encouraging and championing her determination to ‘live a life’.
Taking place as a series of interviews between the two characters, the result is a production fuelled by an engaging dynamism, as we turn from one character to the other, switching between Stephanie’s various emotions, silent spectators in a very intimate exchange between psychiatrist and patient.
Katherine Parker-Jones gives a skilfully stirring performance as Stephanie. A former world-class violinist, Stephanie Abraham’s recent diagnosis means that she will no longer be able to play the violin. As this frequently leaves her feeling low, she visits Dr Feldmann at the suggestion of her husband. When we first meet her, though sceptical of the Dr’s ability to help, Stephanie presents herself, both to Dr Feldmann and the audience, as a character who refuses to let her condition get the better of her. She demonstrates an admirable resilience, a powerful determination to continue living as full a life as possible. She has set goals for herself – though she cannot play the violin, she will teach it. Later, we find that she has taken on two students, and is putting the feelers out for more. However, in between these moments of blazon determination, we spy vulnerabilities, that manifest themselves in moments of anxiety and depression, as she laments her inability to play the violin, and with it, the loss of the core of her very existence, the basis of her world.
In the second half of the production, there is a notable change within the character, not merely in terms of her appearance – her previously neat hair and formal attire has been traded in for jeans, dirty Converse trainers and a checked baggy shirt which hangs off her shoulder – but also in terms of her temperament, the result of dispensing with taking her medication. Up until this point, Stephanie was notably well-spoken. Now, her language laden with profanities, she is irritable, angry, neurotic, and frequently takes to verbally lashing out at Dr Feldmann, as she fights to project her inner turmoil and confusion. Parker-Jones has a masterful command of emotional range here, and creates a dimensional character that is subject to the changeable nature of humanity.
Martin Bourne’s Dr Feldmann is a gentle, reassuring presence, often taking the backseat as Stephanie opens up to him, encouraged by his approachable and quietly contemplative nature. Though his questions sometimes pain Stephanie, we understand that this character really cares for his patients, and is moved by a desire to preserve and improve their lives, and we thus appreciate the necessity of his methods. When he begins to water his house plants, this action seems to mirror a figurative ‘watering’ of Stephanie, gently applying that which will encourage her growth, development, and mental and emotional nourishment. Towards the end of the production, irritated with Stephanie’s game of ‘silly buggers’, he fleetingly loses professionalism as he bangs his desk, raising his voice, commanding her to see sense. One questions, however, whether this too is a method intended to spark sense.
The production is set in the office of Dr Feldmann, which has a traditional charm. Papers and appointment books lie neatly atop his desk, his bookcase is filled with books on psychiatry, and several house plants decorate the room. The intimate setting of the Attic Theatre heightens the intimacy of this piece, and yet there is an inviting openness to the production, and the careful placing of chair and wheelchair and positioning of the two actors allows the audience to closely share in this back-and-forth, life-and-death exchange.
Also on the Dr’s desk is a Newton’s Cradle, a rather fitting objectification of what is unfolding between our characters. A couple of times within the production, Dr Feldmann lifts and releases a sphere at one end of the device. The force of this action transmits through the stationary spheres, causing the sphere at the other end to be propelled upwards, before returning the force, and so on, before the pace slowly subsides, and all is stationary once more. Dr Feldmann is like that first sphere, probing, questioning, applying gentle pressure on Stephanie, who is moved by the force of his question, before retaliating, often using wry humour, striking back at him.
In a clever display of Stephanie’s changeable emotional state, brought on by her medication, pace is greatly manipulated in the production. Directly following a question, the pace often increases to support a powerful verbal attack on the Dr by Stephanie, as she becomes uncomfortable by his questioning, and begins to defend herself. A few moments later, however, her irritable energy dissipates, and there are several moments of complete, stationary quiet.
There are moments within the play when Stephanie gives lengthy, lyrical monologues that chart some part of her past. During these moments, the lighting dims on the stage, leaving one single, slowly fading light on Stephanie, and we become transfixed solely on her as we delve into the deepest parts of her consciousness. In one monologue, Stephanie tells us how she came to play the violin. Encouraged by her mother, this was, not a hobby, but a way of life, one that meant everything to her. She tells us of a memorable row she had with her unsupportive father, who did everything he could to put an end to this ‘little girl’s hobby’. When he stopped paying for her violin lessons, Stephanie stopped doing her school work. From a young age, she was ruled by a ‘great determination in the face of great pressure’. It is such determination that Dr Feldmann urges her to cling to.
Together, these two very human characters prepare to fight beside each other, engaged in a struggle for which the purpose, the prize, is life.
A stirring symphony imbued with a thirst for life, ‘Duet for One’ plays its melodic expression of humanity on the heartstrings.