When looking for a profound opening statement to a review, it’s not often I delve into the world of musical theatre. But this quote from The King and I immediately sprang to mind as being very appropriate to The Soul of Wittgenstein which has opened the Omnibus Theatre. The quote goes – “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught”, and it fits the bill perfectly.
Late 1941 and a middle-aged man – real name Ludwig Wittgenstein (Richard Stemp) – is getting ready for work. He is unhurried in his preparations and meticulously irons each item of clothing before putting it on. We move now to Guys Hospital where, in a private room, a young man by the name of John Smith (Ben Woodhall) is lying in bed. He is joined by Ludwig dressed in a porter’s jacket and here to administer John’s drugs. Initially, John is suspicious of the new porter and is worried that this man could be a spy – especially when John finds out he is Austrian. The two men couldn’t be more different. The lowly porter is, in reality, one of the greatest philosophers of the age, whilst the young man is an illiterate product of a traditional East End family, whose only dream is to follow his father and grandfather and become a navvy then one day get married – in a Catholic church – to the love of his life. Slowly, and with the help of an old copy of ‘War and Peace’ these two disparate men draw together and establish a relationship based on mutual understanding and affection.
Where to start on reviewing The Soul of Wittgenstein. Let’s start with the most obvious comment. This play is absolutely awesome. If you don’t get to see anything else this year, then make sure you get to a performance of it. This is a play where everything is right from start to finish.
Ron Elisha’s story is first rate. Even though the idea of a friendship developing between a cheery cockney and a world-renowned professor of philosophy from Austria sounds highly improbable, it really does work. Right from the start, you can see the two characters change as they interact with each other. Richard Stemp’s Wittengstein starts off as a pompous know-it-all with no internal switch to tell him when not to talk – think an older version of “Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper – but his meeting with John humanises him in a way that is marvelous to behold. Similarly, Ben Woodhall’s John is initially a servile uneducated man, deeply in awe of the porter and painfully aware of the cultural and societal differences between them. By the end, he has blossomed under Wittgenstein’s tutelage and is able to talk on equal terms, even to challenge the ideas and beliefs of the great man.
Director Dave Spencer keeps the action near to the front of the stage which gives a nice sense of intimacy and really allows the audience to feel like we are in the room – great set design by Mayou Trikerioti – with the two men as they banter off each other. And banter they do. Both actors make their character and the situation they are in totally believable. There is a lot of laughter in their discussions as well as moments of reflection. For example, at one point Wittgenstein tries to recount the plot of “War and Peace” in as few words as possible for John. He suddenly stops and comments on the banality of the story when stripped of all the description and emotion in the full story especially when told by a great orator. In a way, this is true for me writing this review. I could easily type how the play made me feel. How at the end of 80 minutes I left the theatre wiping a tear from my eye and feeling privileged to have been at this performance. But even these sentences fall short of doing justice the marvelous piece of theatre I had just lived through.
To summarise, The Soul of Wittgenstein is one of those productions where every element comes together to produce an amazing story that captures your head and your heart and refuses to let them go. Fantastic!
Review by Terry Eastham
1941. Guy’s Hospital, London. A battered copy of War and Peace. An illiterate Cockney dying of cancer and a philosopher handing out pills. Their world is determined by these facts. But is it defined by them? Written by Ron Elisha, winner of four Australian Writers’ Guild Awards, The Soul of Wittgenstein is a pertinent, engrossing, confrontational, yet tender, new play. It asks what happens when we open up, when we put aside our differences, and when we force ourselves to feel. If a dying man questioned what you were doing with your life, how would you answer? And would it be something that you were willing to admit?
CAST AND CREATIVES
Richard Stemp (Ludwig Wittgenstein), Ben Woodhall (John Smith)
Dave Spencer (director), Mayou Trikerioti (set and costume designer), Rachael Murray (sound designer), Clancy Flynn (lighting designer)
Dates: 6 – 25 February 2018 (Tues-Sat 7.30pm, Sun 4pm, running time: 80 minutes)
Venue: Omnibus Theatre, 1 Clapham Common North Side, London SW4 0QW