Review of ‘Duet for One’: “A haunting enticement”

Tom Kempinski’s touching piece dealing with terminal disease returns to London in a fully reworked production directed by Richard Beecham. Guillermo Nazara reviews this limited-running play starring Tara Fitzgerald and Maureen Beattie, to share his thoughts about a work of fiction raising awareness about a most devastating reality.

They say that life’s meaning is the pursue of a dream – that long-yearned wish that we keep praying to reality to take under its wing. Sometimes, that magic happens; some others, we’ve just got to keep hoping. But there’s also those times when that rare strike of luck hits us only to shatter when we’ll miss it the most. An artist’s life is a commitment to their art – the care and nurturing of that mystic force called talent, which gradually turns into that responsibility of being shared with the world. Yet, what’s left to do when such a gift persist but the means to channel it vanishes?

This month, Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre hosts a story of strength presented through a disguise of weakening. Penned by prolific and popular playwright Tom Kempinski, Duet for One is no stranger to either the London or the international scene (having already been performed in 14 other countries), but this production has offered creatives the chance of enhancing its viscerality and constructing a deeper bond not just between character and audience but also character and their own self.

Directed by Richard Beecham (most recent titles include the revival of Samuel Beckett’s Footfalls and Rockaby), the piece, first performed at the Almeida in 2009, deals with a world-acclaimed violinist facing the hardest struggle of her entire career: the fact that is over, for something that is completely out of her control. Coping with the first stages of the degenerating and incurable multiple sclerosis, she starts attending psychiatric sessions with Dr. Feldmann, in an attempt (encouraged by her husband) to soothe the harshness of a fate she can’t decide upon.

Structured as a set of different meetings between doctor and patient, the play is a insightful and masterly crafted deconstruction of the human psyche – slowly tearing down the walls that, aware of them or not, we build up to present ourselves to society. And unconsciously, we may also end up raising for ourselves. Tragedy, humour and cunning join in a perfect mix, developing an exceptionally paced dialogued-through narrative (a most praisable effort given that it’s only two actors in an almost continuous recount), endowing the writing with a soul and brain in a perfect combination of raw emotions and rational profoundity.

Such an achievement is supported (and probably secured) through a subtle stage design by Simon Kenny. With only a pair of chairs, a tea table and a carpet to recreate the sterile atmosphere of a doctor’s office, the use of a revolving platform (almost in an going loop throughout the entire performance) is a triumph of aesthetic and dramatic effects, keeping a visual interest while at the same time creating the cinematic impression of gradually deepening into the characters’ mindsets. But no complete connection could have been accomplished without the use of this production’s signature addition: the writing of an original score played live as the personalization of the lead’s younger self – and in some way, the materialization of her states and thoughts. Composed by Oliver Vibrans, the music exudes the late romantic vibe that provides setting and and sentimental exposition, played with exquisite technique and sensitivity by Kath Roberts.

All of that is fairly reinforced through the most enjoyable renditions by Maureen Beattie as Dr. Feldman and Tara Fitzgerald as fiddler Stephanie Abrahams, both exuding laudable stage presence in a restrained and more flamboyant way, respectively. The only flaw, however, concerns Fitzgerald’s portrayal of her character’s symptoms, which at this point seem a bit orchestrated – although they will likely be improved throughout the course of the show’s run.

Not too many occasions give us the opportunity to witness (and relish in) a work that’s able to push your buttons on so many levels. Able to entertain, bind and (to some degree) educate without the slightest of preachment, the treasurable quality of the original material has only been refined through this immaculate envisionment, proving an instinctive understanding of both the piece and the craftsmanship of its genre. For those who usually complain at the end of a show (and probably also before it starts) by saying they were looking for “a bit more”, maybe the search has ended – too bad for you.

All pictures credit to Helen Murray.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Duet for One plays from Monday to Saturday until 18 March. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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