Tom Kempinski’s plays Separation and Duet for One complement each other so beautifully that, frankly, I was surprised to hear that the recent stint at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre was the first time they’ve been performed by the same cast. I later realised just how exhausting that must be for all involved. Both plays are performed by just two actors, rarely getting a moment off stage and each taking their turns on truly outstanding journeys.
However exhausting it may be, Clare Foster and Rob Edwards didn’t let on.
I caught the two plays near the very end of their run, and I admit I was blown away. These are complex, thought-provoking pieces, so deceptively simple in their production, and were performed beautifully by the actors involved. Now, as the two shows are so closely connected I was initially unsure as to which order I should see them in. I’m not it would matter, truth be told, but I saw Separation first, and was very happy with that choice.
Separation tells the story of Sarah Wise and Joe Green, an actress in New York and a playwright in London. Sarah suffers from a degenerative illness that has kept her out of work for seven years, and the lead character of Joe’s play, ‘The Empty Palette’, suffers from an illness that has restrict her to a wheelchair. The basic premise is that Sarah would like the rights to put on ‘The Empty Palette’ in an off-off-Broadway theatre.
From here, an unusual and interesting relationship develops. While Sarah’s handicap is the one that initially grabs you, we learn more and more about Joe’s mental well-being, and it becomes apparent that he, in fact, feels more trapped by his own mind than Sarah does by her body.
The staging on Separation is truly fantastic. It stays remarkably simple, consisting simply of Joe’s living room (a couch, table, TV etc.) and Sarah’s bedroom (a bed, bedside table, chair etc.) and most importantly, two phones. The most beautiful part of this set is that these two actors are no more than fifteen feet away from each other at any point, yet they look past each other and through each other in a way that really makes you feel that they’re thousands of miles apart. There is a chemistry there that is simply spoken, there is no physical interaction between the two for quite some time, and when there is, it is perfect. There is a comfortable tension between the two, and it hits home as being nothing but real.
A few extra elements of this production really stood out to me, and they are down to the actors themselves. Firstly, I feel that Rob Edwards makes a fantastic change in the way he carries himself as the play moves along. Not only in the way he changes as we hear hints of his character change (for example, when Joe is discussing his weight loss, the change in his appearance seems dramatic; Edwards holds himself in a way that is hardly recognizable from the Joe we’ve seen so far, his appearance is changed by Sarah’s presence, and it is striking) but in the way he portrays Joe’s panic. His late-night panic attack feels incredibly real, as does the way he slowly talks himself down. While we hear Joe discuss his agoraphobia and anxiety at other points throughout the play, this is the moment we truly realise the situation this man finds himself in, and how difficult he finds his day to day life.
Also deserving of high praise is the way in which Clare Foster adapts her movements on stage to portray Sarah, and the way in which she uses Sarah’s crutches. At no point does it cross your mind that these movements are staged, that they are anything less than natural. The jarring movements made across the stage really do feel like the movements of somebody who has spent seven years growing used to the changes in their body.
Separation is, in my opinion, an incredibly moving piece. I thoroughly enjoyed the ways in which it addressed the issues of mental illness, as well as its strong, feminist female character and the way in which, much ahead of its time, it faces the idea of developing a relationship with a person you’ve never met.
In the end, of course, Sarah’s production of ‘The Empty Palette’ is a success, but the play is about much more than that. The play takes time to speak of the ways in which artists of all kinds express themselves through their craft, as we learn that ‘The Empty Palette’ is not at all about a woman struck with a physical disability, but is entirely a metaphor for the ways in which Joe suffers from his mental illness. Edwards delivers this message beautifully.
‘The Empty Palette’ is not ‘The Empty Palette’ at all, but is, in fact, Duet for One. Based on the life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whose career ended after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
In Duet for One, violinist Stephanie Abrahams visits psychiatrist Dr. Feldmann after she is forced to give up her career after being diagnosed with M.S.
The play begins much as I expected, with Stephanie being reluctant to Dr. Feldmann’s help as he attempts to dig deep into her childhood, looking for the elusive key to her psyche. It’s hard not to be captivated by the back-and-forth between the two, as Stephanie’s sharp tongue adds elements of disdain and discomfort to their interactions. Her scathing wit and what, at times can only be described as sass, could create the feeling of a caricature rather than a character, but quite the opposite is true thanks to both Kempinski’s writing and the way in which Foster seems to understand her character. Stephanie’s attitude makes her appear incredibly open and honest, as she reveals herself by trying so hard to hide.
The relationship between the two characters is profound and fascinating, as we see both of them slowly break down the walls they have tried so hard to build around themselves. Stephanie tells Dr. Feldmann of an affair she has started, and begins to answer his questions more honestly, telling the Doctor about her childhood and her father’s less that positive view of her music career. However, this openness only occurs after Dr. Feldmann expresses his growing annoyance with Stephanie, in a moving and brutally honest speech in which he tells her of patients who have not managed to find their peace through therapy. In a pivotal moment, the two speak about the meaning of life which is, as Feldmann says, simply to live.
It is this conversation that leads to a change in Stephanie’s approach to therapy. She is no longer simply there because her husband thought she ought to, and the play closes with a fantastic display of openness, not just from Stephanie as a character but from Foster as an actress (who is able to produce fantastic amounts of tears on stage and I’m frankly amazed she wasn’t dehydrated by the end of the show’s run). Stephanie’s words detailing the ways in which music shaped her life were touching and honest, and it was the final scene that truly allowed me to consider the difficulties she would face. While Stephanie is of course a fictional character, her story is based on reality and Foster treats this fact with the greatest respect.
Again, I feel I must praise Foster’s physicality, as her movements appear natural and her restricted capabilities throughout the play do not seem to hinder the ways in which she expresses herself physically. As with Sarah in Separation, Clare Foster manages to make you forget that this is staged, that she is not, in fact, confined to a wheelchair. I must say that before I saw the shows, I wondered if the crutches and the wheelchair, respectively, may be distracting, but I found that after the first few minutes I didn’t think of them as anything more than a part of the character. I believe the fact that within time the crutches were no more distracting than the set or wardrobe is largely down to Foster herself and the way she fully embraces her character’s reality.
While Edwards is deserving of high praise for Duet for One, especially in regard to the scene in which he discusses his so-called failures with Stephanie, I believe it is Foster’s performance that truly steals this show, and she is most certainly the reason that the majority of the audience were in tears as they left their seats.
As I said, this is the first time these two shows have been performed by the same cast and I personally couldn’t imagine seeing them any other way. These two actors had a wonderful chemistry between them, and the four characters were portrayed with great sensitivity, empathy and honesty. The plays themselves are truly fantastic pieces, and as I write this (and edit it – almost five months later!) I find that their messages are staying with me, reminding me that life is for living, and that anybody you encounter could be fighting their own battle.