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Duet for One – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer: Tom Kempinski

Director: Robin Lefevre

Reviewer: Gareth Davies

A problem shared is a problem halved, as the old mantra would have it, and in that vein Tom Kempinski’s 1980 play puts the therapeutic relationship firmly in the spotlight, as a world-class musician (Belinda Lang) seeks treatment from a Teutonic psychiatrist (Oliver Cotton).

And so society’s fascination with the contentious world of talking treatments is indulged once again, but whilst this dramatic peek behind the curtain of the mental health profession may have startled audiences four decades ago, the therapist’s couch – now a ready staple of TV and film – is no longer such a source of mystery.

Dramatically speaking, both players in Robin Lefevre’s production of this two-hander are largely confined to chairs for the duration, Lang in a motorised wheelchair and Cotton rarely moving from the desk at which he sits. Whilst truer to the static nature of a normal therapy session, this stasis is rather stultifying for an audience, and lends dramatic moments of greater movement around the stage a clumsily purposeful feel.

Lang captures something of her character’s childlike bursts of energy, her mood swings and exaggerated expression and vocal tone explicitly conveying her resistance to the therapeutic process. It is not hard to discern her desperate efforts to defend herself (and her history) from the psychiatric inquisition. But it is in moments of stillness and quietness that Lang most effectively conveys internal shifts of emotion, without ever quite expressing the depth of feeling with which she engages.

Cotton has the relatively thankless role of Stage Psychiatrist – we, like his patient, learn little of his character beyond his dramatic function as engineer of change. And although his outburst in the latter half of the play seems to get the credit for motivating his patient’s great emotional shift, it feels dangerously like the kind of loss of control his character would have avoided.

At times the text feels little more than an exercise exploring some crude ideas about mental health and its treatment. A stronger, and perhaps more prescient, playing of the text could have put an emphasis on the way this woman plays second-fiddle to successive men in her life (father, husband, psychiatrist), and is variously gaslighted by them; ultimately, her world is dangerously destabilised by the intervention of a male doctor/authority figure, whose keen insistence on medication leads his patient to question and undermine the very strengths and coping strategies that have allowed her to thrive since childhood.

The play’s final exchange is offered as a statement of emotional solidarity but could as easily be read as a doctor overpowering his patient’s explicitly reasoned desires – an apt and uneasy reflection of current concerns around patriarchal power plays.

Runs until 4 November 2017 | Image: Robert Day

Writer: Tom Kempinski Director: Robin Lefevre Reviewer: Gareth Davies A problem shared is a problem halved, as the old mantra would have it, and in that vein Tom Kempinski's 1980 play puts the therapeutic relationship firmly in the spotlight, as a world-class musician (Belinda Lang) seeks treatment from a Teutonic psychiatrist (Oliver Cotton). And so society's fascination with the contentious world of talking treatments is indulged once again, but whilst this dramatic peek behind the curtain of the mental health profession may have startled audiences four decades ago, the therapist's couch – now a ready staple of TV and film…

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