It’s been over two decades since Tom Kempinski wrote the much celebrated Duet for One, which examines the impact that a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis has upon the life of an acclaimed concert violinist.
Now this compelling and powerful drama comes to Watford Palace Theatre and if the story sounds vaguely familiar it’s because Kempinski based the story on the real life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré and how such a talent coped with the cruel ironies of life.
The two-hander stars two of the country’s most experienced actors. William Gaunt, for those of us with long memories, came to fame in the 1960s in the fantasy TV series, The Champions but has redeemed himself with a lengthy stage and screen career. He last appeared at Chichester over the summer in the chilling Brecht masterpiece, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Gaunt plays therapist Dr. Louis Feldman whose sessions with the musician helps the virtuoso come to terms with her disability. Playing opposite him is Haydn Gwynne, fresh from her multi-award-winning role in Billy Elliott the Musical and recently returned from New York, where she earned rave reviews playing Queen Elizabeth opposite Kevin Spacey’s Richard III,
She prepared for the challenging role of Stephanie Abrahams by talking with MS sufferers, health workers and classical violinists. “The play”, she says, “makes it clear that becoming a world-class performer isn’t simply about talent. It’s a difficult journey that requires immense emotional and physical investment. But for Stephanie that journey is finished.”
A hoped-for cure for MS hasn’t materialized and Stephanie Abrahams’ battle to come to terms with the new reality of her life is as pertinent today as it was when Kempinski wrote this inspirational play.
Director Robin Herford said: “Preparing for Duet for One during this Olympic summer has made me very aware of the sacrifices and dedication required of anyone competing at the highest level of any activity.
“But actually rehearsing the play while the amazing Paralympic Games were in full swing has brought a fresh appreciation of what so many people have to deal with in the way of setbacks - traumas, accidents, unexpected diagnoses and all the other obstacles to fulfilling their dreams. To what extent can determination and positivity conquer everything?”
At the age of 75, William Gaunt is calling upon his years of theatrical experience to meet the challenge of tackling a two-handed play. He likens it to running a marathon. “Of course,” he says, “Haydn is more mobile on stage than I am because of her state-of-the-art motorised wheelchair – not exactly the racing wheelchairs we’re now so familiar with, but fast, nonetheless. When the play was originally produced, seeing someone in a wheelchair was a novelty. Now, thanks to the Paralympics, it’s something people can readily relate to.”
Duet For One runs from November 20-25. For tickets call the box office 01923 225671 or www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk