Like many people who saw it in the Eighties, Duet for One lodged in my heart and in my mind for many years. Ever since it got around that we were doing it here, people have been coming out of the woodwork saying, “oh my god, I remember that” and using expressions like blown away, moved to tears, uplifted and shocked. It’s a play that has that sort of effect.
I believe the play is a modern classic. It’s fantastic in terms of its structure and insight and the dramatic tension out of which humour comes. I remember sitting in the theatre, laughing but also being deeply upset and worried for the woman particularly. Here’s this absolutely brilliant, international, top-notch violinist who could never play the violin again. How is she going to cope? It speaks about somebody overcoming phenomenal deterioration from an Olympian height of skill. It’s like an Olympic skier no longer being able to ski. If you can’t do what your self-esteem is based on, your entire sense of self-worth, who are you?
Then what the play does, it makes you see why this woman became a violinist in the first place. You start to care deeply, to want to help. The other side of the play - without giving too much, because it’s an exciting discovery – is about therapy. It’s often said that all therapists become therapists because they need therapy, so Dr Feldmann has a few flaws too. I am very conscious that therapy has moved on a great deal, as have discoveries about multiple sclerosis and drugs to deal with it, but the central problem of losing that which makes you feel yourself, of becoming less than what you were, hasn’t changed. That’s the dramatic centre, the core tussle between these two people, this fight.
The play also confronts issues about the dangers of success and fame - you’re used to getting your own way, to maybe not being challenged, to people being so respectful they diminish you. In its worst form, fame’s flattery can kill people. It can make them go up their own orifices. But on a much more subtle and sophisticated level, it can make them think they really are something that they’re not. They lose their common touch, they lose humility. They become cut off from the rest of the world that they’re supposed to be expressing. And so success is a very dangerous thing. And the play makes you negotiate that danger.
Working with Juliet Stevenson makes acting worthwhile. She has a sense of dignity. She has a phenomenal appetite for life, like me. We challenge each other. It’s nice to have to be ready for down-the-line aces at any point. I don’t mean that in a competitive sense, I mean it in terms of truthfulness, courage, discipline. It’s fantastic.
There hasn’t been a mainstream revival of Duet for One in London for over 20 years. David de Keyser and Frances de la Tour had a huge success with it, starting at the Bush Theatre back in 1980 and then transferring to the West End. Since then, of course, there have been films about Jacqueline Du Pre and Daniel Barenboim and the multiple sclerosis all of that, which attest to the power of the story.
The differences in doing the play now are made by what the audience brings. Times have changed and, aside from knowing more about Du Pre’s story, therapy and MS, I think our notion of what life is like for these high-level achievers in the classical music world is less distant. You know, from Vanessa Mae and Yo-Yo Ma to great Russian pianists and reality TV competition programmes, we have much broader exposure to the pressures of high-level artists. So we, the actors and the audience, now bring a different set of insights into living on that precipice.
Most importantly, though, people should come and see Duet for One because it’s life-affirming. And in these times, something that says life is worthwhile in spite of horrendous odds, that’s an exciting thing.
Duet for One continues at the Almeida Theatre until 14 March 2009, and then tours to Bath, Windsor and Richmond Theatre, where it concludes on 4 April.