DUET FOR ONE at the Orange Tree Theatre
“Gabriella Opacka-Boccadoro gives a virtuosic performance on violin, beautifully emoting Oliver Vibrans’ score”
The title implies that the focus of “Duet for One” will be on the one protagonist: the once famous violinist, slowly crippled by multiple sclerosis who self-destructively drifts into bitter isolation. In reality, though, both characters are the lead in Tom Kempinski’s affecting two-hander. And it is very much a duel, rather than a duet. A dramatized battle between the psychiatrist and the patient. A clash between the healer and the incurable.
Famous for the film starring Julie Andrews and, more pertinently, for the acclaimed stage play with Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman which transferred to the West End from the Almeida Theatre in 2009, Richard Beecham’s revival at the Orange Tree Theatre has made some brave character choices. Traditionally a male role, switching the gender of the therapist to female has subtly altered the dynamics without compromising any of the tension. There is also the introduction of a third character, hitherto merely talked about to excess. The music. The inclusion of a live violinist provides some achingly beautiful moments that help connect the audience to the shadows that plague the mind of musician Stephanie Abrahams (Tara Fitzgerald).
Encouraged by her unseen composer husband, Stephanie has embarked on a course of treatment with Dr. Feldmann (Maureen Beattie). One doesn’t need to have been in therapy to be able to recognise the initial reticence and scepticism. Fitzgerald’s tight-rhythmed delivery of the time-honoured jibes are cloaked in light humour but dark denial. In her position we are intentionally forced to wonder why she keeps returning for another session, but we gradually feel her deep need as the tables turn.
The play is a harsh exploration of purpose, identity and suicidal despair which has the potential to be distressing but which, in Fitzgerald’s and Beattie’s hands is given a very human and relatable touch as we are led through the five stages of grief; although we never quite reach the final acceptance. Throughout the duet (or rather duel) Fitzgerald blocks the passage while Beattie’s final words teasingly suggests that there might be a way through.
Simon Kenny’s slowly revolving set lets us view the narrative from each perspective, sometimes shielding the facial expressions to allow the sharpness of Kempinski’s words reach us unencumbered. A thinly disguised study of cellist Jacqueline du Pre, the play avoids sentimentality by stripping the characters of sympathy – simultaneously pushing us away but drawing us in. At times it seems that each character is too intent on gaining the upper hand. It is only in the second act that we begin to get a sense of the emotion – the deep chasm of loss that Stephanie feels. Although Fitzgerald’s violent outbursts are not always believable, we do still want to breach the veneer of unhappiness as she reveals the crux of the matter: that without her purpose – her music – life is meaningless. Morality also rears its head as Beattie triumphs with a show stealing tirade against Stephanie’s suicidal thoughts.
Gabriella Opacka-Boccadoro gives a virtuosic performance on violin, beautifully emoting Oliver Vibrans’ score. Intended to reflect Stephanie’s states of mind it serves more to guide us from one scene to the next. Perhaps too consistently beautiful for the narrative, it yearns with longing while avoiding the hopelessness and despair. Tender is the music, but hard is the heart. There is no real resolution, or promise of a happy ending, in “Duet for One”. There is no need. The realism, both in the script and in the performances, leaves the choices to us.
Reviewed on 16th February 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Helen Murray
Previously reviewed at this venue: