Every artist’s worst nightmare

Over twenty years after the première, Duet For One is still a deeply moving portrayal of the kind of ordeal faced by Jacqueline du Pré.

Most serious artists would agree that the one thing you need to make it – whether you’re an aspiring writer, painter, composer or whatever – is dedication. Anyone who considers their art less important than silly trivial things like, oh, a social life, or a career, or a stable relationship, is clearly not going to make it. The same can be said of sportspeople. Small wonder, then, that after high-profile sportpeople retire, many of them face isolation, depression, and sometimes even suicide. Artists are a bit more lucky, and can generally keep going far beyond their thirties. But not always. When the thing you dedicated you life to is cut short by illness or injury, how do your recover from that? That was was the tragic fate of Jacqueline du Pré, an extraordinarily gifted famous cellist who lost it all to multiple sclerosis.

Duet for One is not the only story based on du Pré’s decline, nor the most famous – that title goes to the controversial Hilary and Jackie, criticised by many as sensationalist and inaccurate. Tom Kempinski on the other hand, distances his play from reality; Jacqueline du Pré becomes Stephanie Anderson, a gifted violinist, no sister in the family, and no brother-in-law to make dubious claims over an affair. Instead, we have a back-story of Stephanie’s childhood battle with a father determined she won’t pursue music as a career, proof of how much her music means to her. But the main thing remains unchanged, which is the thing that she gave everything for she can no longer do.

Dr. FriedmannThis revival, directed by Robin Herford for Calibre Productions, toured to the Stephen Joseph Theatre where he used to be acting artistic director during Ayckbourn’s sabbatical to the National Theatre. One small change I would have made would be to show the play in the end-stage McCarthy Auditorium instead of the main Round auditorium. Touring companies that come to the SJT tend to be pretty good at speedily re-staging their proscenium-based play for the Round, but there’s always something that doesn’t work quite with. In this case, the problem is that Dr. Alfred Feldman (William Gaunt), Stephanie’s therapist, being a rather static character, has his back almost permanently turned to anyone sitting in Block B. Dramas of this kind are difficult to sell compared to comedies, so they could probably have accommodated everyone in the smaller theatre upstairs.

However, I have nothing to fault with the production itself. Haydn Gwynne’s performance as Stephanie cannot be described as anything other than outstanding. She apparently researched the role by talking to MS suffers, health workers and classical violinists, and this evidently paid off handsomely with a thoroughly convincing portrayal of a woman who’s lost everything that matters to her. Amazingly, in spite of this being the darkest of dark plays, the play frequently got laughs from the audience – but there again, it is quite normal for people in the worst of circumstances to still have the darkest sense of humour.

The tricky bit of this play is which direction to take the story. In the first act, Stephanie seems optimistic, planning a future as a music teacher and secretary to her composer husband. Alas, this is just a front, and by the third session, thanks to Dr. Feldmann’s questions, she is breaking down in despair at the hopelessness of her future. After that, she descends into real depression, giving away her prized violin, embarking on a ludicrous affair with a scrap metal dealer, and regularly contemplating suicide. All this time Stephanie has thinly-concealed suspicions and hostility to the doctor, forever accusing him of making people worse.

Stephanie Abarhams, at her lowest pointTrouble is, Stephanie might be right here. Expert though Dr. Feldmann was and getting Stephanie to face her pitiful situation, I can’t really say whether her descent into self destruction was in spite of his intervention or because of it. Even at the end of the play, where Stephanie has recovered from her low point but now wants to quit the treatment, it’s still hard to tell from the play if she was any better off than she would have been without the treatment. Certainly, this was an ending they weren’t happy with for the film version with Julie Andrews. In the film, it takes a proper suicide attempt before Stephanie visibly accepts that life has to go on, providing a more definite conclusion to the story.

But do real stories of MS have endings like that? Perhaps the best summary of the kind of treatment received by Stephanie is in the last sentence of the programme note from Elaine Peake:

“A talking cure, however, is rather to be viewed as a journey, taken in the company of someone who may not know all the windings and dangers of the road ahead, but can be relied upon to possess a good map and compass, and to see the journey through.”

So although the second half of the play lacks a definitive ending, maybe that was the idea. It would have been more upbeat for the clever Dr. Friedmann to have had it under control all along and achieve a breakthrough at the end, but as for realism … stories like Jacqueline’s, or anyone suffering that level of depression, aren’t that simple and don’t really have endings. Duet For One might not have the most clear-cut satisfying ending, and it’s certainly not recommended as a feel-good story of overcoming one’s demons, but if the intention of this play was to be thought-provoking, writer and director and have succeeded in this task handsomely.