The Soul of Wittgenstein
Reviewed – 8th February 2018
“the audience would have been better served with a tighter script”
The Soul of Wittengenstein is a dramatic imagining of the philosopher’s time spent working, incognito, as a porter in a London hospital in WWII. The playwright, Ron Elisha, introduces the character John Smith, an illiterate navvy who is a patient in the hospital, and charts the development of a surprising but profound friendship between the two men. Within this simplest of plot lines, we are also treated to a whistle-stop tour of War and Peace, and some of the salient points of Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy.
The play begins with a beautiful and revealing silent movement sequence from Richard Stemp, as Wittgenstein, underscored by a perfectly chosen sonata for cello and piano. The left side of the stage is barely lit, but we are aware of an inhabited hospital bed. This opening, showing the deft directorial hand of Dave Spencer that is present throughout, perfectly sets the tone of the piece. Compliments are due here to Rachael Murray (Sound), Clancy Flynn (Lighting) and Mayou Trikerioti (Set) for terrific production design, in which the sound, the lighting and the set continually worked together in subtle harmony.
Richard Stemp ably embodied the capricious philosopher, described by Bertrand Russell as ‘the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating’. Wittgenstein, as seen here, is not immediately likeable – he is pedantic and emotionally disconnected – and it is testament to Stemp’s skill that we warm to the man as the play unfolds. Ben Woodhall gave a wonderful and utterly believable performance as John Smith. His naive charm and essential humanity were on display throughout and provided the perfect counterpoint to Stemp’s tightly-held genius. He also maintained an excellent Cockney accent of the period. It was just a shame that this was occasionally marred by errors in the writing of the slang. Cockney rhyming slang works as a code because the rhyming part of the phrase remains unspoken, hence ‘plates of meat’ (feet) becomes ‘plates’; ‘apples and pears’ (stairs) becomes ‘apples’ etc. Other than ‘brown bread’ (dead) – a notable exception – this is how it works. John’s relationship to Wittgenstein’s ‘dickie birds’ (words) is central to the play, and it therefore seemed odd that they weren’t the ‘dickies’ they should have been.
The play’s relationship with words, as a whole, presented problems. Wittgenstein’s character, as well as the nature of his philosophical enquiries, is predicated on linguistic play and precision; thus not innately theatrical. For this reason, the play lacked pace; the audience would have been better served with a tighter script and twenty minutes taken off the running time. That being said, the high quality of the acting, directing and production design led to an enjoyable, and occasionally moving, evening at the theatre.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Lidia Crisafulli
The Soul of Wittgenstein
Omnibus Theatre until 25th February