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Review of The Soul of Wittgenstein at the King’s Head Theatre

The Soul of Wittgenstein-press-photo300The better informed a person is, the better. Ludwig Wittgenstein (Richard Stemp) was a name I was completely unaware of before seeing The Soul of Wittgenstein, and had I been asked to guess who he was I might have said he was a composer, or else a scientist. It appears from this play he is a philosopher, whose apparently seminal work, “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” came across to me as pompous as it sounds, or at least tautological, with assertions such as “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.

If the backdrop of the play is slightly off-putting, the script most certainly isn’t. John Smith (a very likeable Ben Woodhall), a Second World War soldier, is in a hospital (we are only told it is ‘in London’), and any further details on his condition are firmly in spoiler territory. The play initially had me baffled by the introduction of ‘Johan’, a character not listed in the programme, but all became clear by the end – Wittgenstein used an alias for his hospital porter job, his contribution to the war effort.

Within the first minute of the play, the audience is immersed into some very sophisticated reasoning with a broad vocabulary used by a refined character. Both ‘Johan’ and John make considerable efforts to understand one another, and get there eventually, but not before a series of conversations over some months, filled with almost inevitable humour through their misunderstandings. Johan’s real identity is eventually sussed out by John, who claimed to have looked him up, though how or why he did so is never revealed, and I wasn’t wholly convinced. It was as if he pulled out his iPhone and looked him up on a search engine, six months after the Blitz.

The dialogue is often dense, and occasionally became too philosophical for my liking. With the audience sat on either side of the stage, every so often the reactions of others proved as entertaining as the proceedings themselves. An example: John asks Johan to read to him. After a pause (for dramatic effect), he begins. “War and Peace, Chapter One”. One fellow audience member openly gasped, another scrutinised their watch in the darkness of the theatre.

John’s Catholicism doesn’t sit well with Johan’s secular outlook. Religious rites are dismissed as “the reassurance of predictability” and faith is merely “the ultimate capitulation of reason”. There’s something of the cheeky chappie in John, though he is able to hold his own with Johan / Wittgenstein in a slick and quick-paced production. I slowly warmed to Stemp’s Wittgenstein, who began as stiff and aloof but gradually showed an increasingly patient and open-minded nature.

There are some useful (to me) explorations of the power of words and language to be considered with regards to this play, to other plays, and to life in general. This is a two-hander that, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps deliberately, demonstrates that in some ways, our more enlightened and knowledgeable times aren’t as progressive as they may seem. With plenty of laugh-out- loud humour (both characters possessed an uncanny ability to be as unsentimental and unshockable as one another), this is a surprisingly wonderful show. It can’t be altogether easy to make philosophical propositions both accessible and entertaining, but this production makes it seem effortless. A scintillating, subtle and intense play.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

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.

Directed by award­-winning Dave Spencer, 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?

16+, nudity, swearing, sexual content

19th to 30th July 2016


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