In Tom Kempinski’s two-hander, Stevenson is celebrated concert violinist Stephanie Abrahams. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she consults psychiatrist Dr Feldmann, played by Goodman, whose probing questions delve deep her complex personality and force her to consider a future without music.
Inspired by the real-life story of Jacqueline du Pre, Duet for One premiered in 1980 at the Bush, where Frances de la Tour and David Keyser starred, before transferring to the West End and Broadway. The 1986 Hollywood film starred Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow. This revival premiered at the Almeida theatre prior to its West End transfer.
The Q&A took place in the theatre immediately after the performance and was chaired by Whatsonstage.com's Terri Paddock. Click on the link above to listen – edited highlights follow …
On seeing the original production
Henry Goodman: It lodged very deeply in my mind from the impact of Frances de la Tour and David de Keyser. The experience of sitting in that auditorium was so intense, it is not something one easily forgets, and it stayed with me and I had always thought how I would like to play that psychiatrist … and I thought maybe now I am getting older and greyer, now is the time to play it.
On the play itself
Henry Goodman: I always have had a deep fascination with this play. It seems to me to work on so many levels, and it is an interesting thing that entertainment can be savage. Entertainment can be disturbing, upsetting, violent, visceral, unpleasant and wonderful because of it. People love to be in pain. And if you had said I’m going to do a two hander where you are going to drive the audience into the ground most people would have said it will never work.
There is something remarkable about the engagement that happens because you, the audience, fuel us in your willingness to come with us on the journey that this particular piece asks. It doesn’t ingratiate itself readily and Matthew has gone out of his way with us to nurture the very rabid and passionate instincts that Juliet had anyway to be absolutely ruthlessly true to the issues in the play, not the performing temptations, which are huge, but the underlying battle that is going on for life.
On the genesis of this production
Matthew Lloyd: The genesis of this production lies with Henry and I. This was a project we both felt passionate about. Something about the approach, the combination, the way we talked to Tom Kempinski about the project persuaded him that now was the right time for a revival. Obviously a key component of that was who would be playing Stephanie, so the ‘dream team’ was put together, and here we are.
On the ‘Dream team’
Matthew Lloyd: Stephanie Abrahams is an extraordinary role, it’s incredibly testing, it requires the performer to dig up, to dredge up so much stuff that is deeply personal that you have to call upon incredibly exposed, vulnerable areas and there can’t be any holding back, so you don’t just need a great stage actor, you don’t need someone who is just a theatre animal you need someone who has a remarkable fluency and courage and appetite for a sort of restless struggle. The only reason it comes alive is because everything is happening in the moment. It’s as if it is engulfing the individual. And every scene unlocks and unleashes a new wave of stuff for that character to deal with.
On the nature of the ‘love story’
Henry Goodman: What is interesting is the people locked in it don’t know they are in a love story. What they are doing is trying to maintain their role as a facilitator, as an enabler, as someone who can say I’ve got it all together and can cope with this. But they need each other so desperately that all the various things that happen in therapy - transference, need, role play - all sorts of things start to come into it so that whichever way you look at the word love, the need and selflessness of nurturing because I need her as much as she needs me, develops. But I don’t go out to play that, I don’t go out to show that, I just get locked in a battle of the things that I believe and she believes and then out of it probably comes a love story.
On the ending
Juliet Stevenson: There is no right answer, whatever decision you make is as good as any we may have made, and I think that’s because they don’t know in their head. But in my head, as she enters for the last scene, she comes into the room having decided to take her own life. And that is what she has come to say. She is late because she doesn’t want to negotiate that position. She is coming in with enough time to tell him what she is going to do, and to give him enough of the reason why, to let him off his own hooks. She now knows this is a man who punishes himself terribly for what he deems his failures, she has witnessed the pain on his part about patients who have committed suicide and she doesn’t want him to experience that pain when he reads next week’s Times “Stephanie Abrahams, found dead, in the bath”.
I think it’s very interesting if you find ambiguity in the ending because I think possibly in that last moment there is ambiguity in her too. And if we can’t come to a clear decision as to what the result is it is because they can’t either.
On audience reactions to the play
Matthew Lloyd: One of the things we talked about a lot during the early part of the rehearsal process was that we were very aware that when the play was first done, this situation, this kind of room and this kind of therapy was comparatively alien to a lot of the audience. And in the time since it has been put on, and now that it has been revived, it has become a very familiar process, that a lot of people, if they haven’t been through sessions like this, they have had counselling or therapy of some kind. It is actually quite a frequent experience. So the relationship between patient and therapist is something the audience is more likely to have its own take on and investment in. So I think that has changed what the play is in quite a refreshing way. I think people are reading the relationship between these characters in a more sophisticated way. It is great testimony to Tom that the way he wrote it three decades ago is still so alive and thought provoking.
Henry Goodman: The sensitivities to which each of you will respond, forgive me if this is obvious but it is important, are completely dependant on the vocabulary and experiences that you have each been through. The nature of responses from varying voices is particularly interesting but I can assure you that they are rich and different in hundreds of people. I only say that to say how humbling it is that we each enter into the story and each of you are given this provocation and vocabulary to go away and think about you problems, your marriage, your sister, your auntie Mabel, your argument on the bus, loosing your temper, and all of that, well that is really what we are trying to do.
On the on stage chemistry
Juliet Stevenson: I don’t think we build it. I just feel very lucky to be working with this actor. I have worked with loads of wonderful actors in my life but I just love working with Henry. And with Matthew too, it has been a very happy time and I don’t want to sound self-congratulatory in this, but I have worked for 28 years as an actor and I have always wanted to work this way – to go out on stage and not have things fixed, and do things we did last Tuesday, or agreed to do last November.
You do the work, you do the research, you dig your roots down, you build your foundations, but then you go out on stage and you are free and every night you do not quite know what is going to happen. I really love this quite long, difficult and tiring run partly because we can work this way and also because we have these fantastic audiences like tonight. You were an extraordinary audience tonight, bizarre; you feed in your reactions, so every night is really different and really feels like new. That’s what you want to happen, that’s what you talk about happening, but it very rarely does. So I don’t know what the chemistry is, but it has just been a very good working team. And that is quite unusual, and I am really glad.
Juliet Stevenson: I don’t really hurt myself falling over, I mean I get a bit of a bump on that first one when she is showing him the problem. But I would rather do a proper fall, I’m not very good at those rehearsed falls anyway, I’m pretty useless at that stuff. But I think it helps, if you hurt yourself a tiny bit then you don’t have to act! It’s laziness really, it’s one less thing I have to do.