Review: Duet for One

Prognosis is good for shrink drama

By John Nathan, February 5, 2009

Almeida Theatre, London N1

Juliet Stevenson as the reluctant patient and Henry Goodman as her Freudian psychiatrist in Duet for One

Juliet Stevenson as the reluctant patient and Henry Goodman as her Freudian psychiatrist in Duet for One

I’ll bet your penny to my pound that come December, the performers in this revival of Tom Kempinski’s absorbing psychiatry play will be vying for the year’s best actor and best actress awards.

I have found it impossible to take psychiatry too seriously ever since the film High Anxiety, in which Dr Richard H. Thorndyke, played by Mel Brooks, addresses a conference of quacks in front of huge pictures of Jung and Freud. “Years ago,” says Dr Thorndyke, “psychology was akin to witchcraft. But these great people, these giants behind me, gave us a nice living.”

But Kempinski’s play — set in a psychiatrist’s consultation room over six therapy sessions — redresses the balance. Juliet Stevenson plays the wheelchair-bound Stephanie Abrahams, whose life as a virtuoso violinist has been robbed by multiple sclerosis. Henry Goodman is the thoughtful Dr Feldmann, whose job is to convince his patient that life is still worth living.

In writing the stubborn Abrahams, Kempinski was inspired by the great cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whose career was ended by MS. In writing Feldmann, it seems he was inspired by cliché.

In the character notes, he describes Feldmann as “a typical German psychiatrist”. And Goodman, with his Freud-like beard, delivers the required mittel-European accent. He has warmth and tenderness but also strict rules about the doctor-patient relationship — formality at all times; no physical contact, not even to shake hands. And it is in the erosion of not just Feldmann’s rules, but Abrahams’s insistence that she is coping perfectly well thank you very much, that Matthew Lloyd’s beautifully performed production finds its power.

Stevenson has not had to dig so deep since she played the tortured Paulina in Death and the Maiden. And Goodman has not been so mesmerising since his funny and intelligent Shylock in Trevor Nunn’s 1999 landmark production of The Merchant of Venice. It cannot be a coincidence that both were performances for which a detailed understanding of their character’s psychology was crucial.

So now we know what Goodman needs to be at his best. A beard. His Shylock had one, his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof had one, and his Feldmann has one. But then again, his Goldberg in Pinter’s The Birthday Party did not have one and that was pretty good, too. Maybe it is Jews Goodman needs to play to be at his best.

The key to his performance here lies in ignoring a second Kempinski directive — to always look at his patient when she is talking. Instead, while Abrahams reluctantly peels back layers of family history, Feldmann sits still and silent, his gaze directed to the floor in deep concentration. Perhaps with a name like Abrahams, Stevenson could have been a little less Anglo-Saxon. But then we would have missed out on a wonderful culture and personality clash — the WASPish (in both senses) Abrahams versus the implacable Feldmann, who is so maddened by his patient’s slide towards suicide he breaks his most important rule — remain emotionally uninvolved.

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Last updated: 4:29pm, April 28 2009