Review: The Soul of Wittgenstein

King's Head Theatre
5 star rating
A two-hander with Richard Stemp as Wittgenstein and Ben Woodhall as a young, illiterate Londoner, John Smith - an admirable example of powerful drama and superb writing.
The Soul of Wittgenstein at the King's Head Theatre

Image: King's Head Theatre

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Closed here Friday 26 August 2016

Cast and creatives


Richard Stemp - Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ben Woodhall - John Smith


Dave Spencer
Ron Elisha



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 award­winning 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?


Part of #FESTIVAL46.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Friday 22 July 2016
Review star rating image

I first heard about Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 to 1951) years ago through an episode of the hit BBC comedy series Fawlty Towers.

Struggling as usual to make waiter Manuel understand a simple instruction, a frustrated Basil says "This is not a proposition from Wittgenstein".

The Soul of Wittgenstein at the King's Head Theatre

Richard Stemp & Ben Woodhall

It's a great line and one I've 'borrowed' on many occasions.

It refers to Wittgenstein's philosophical 'propositions' which, to me and I suspect the majority of the poulation, are pretty incomprehensible.

In academic circles, though, Wittgenstein was regarded as a genius, for example by the likes of Bertrand Russell.

But behind the philosophical heavyweight, there's a life story which is ripe for dramatic treatment - little wonder that writer Ron Elisha saw the potential.

Already Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge by 1939, as the Second World War raged Wittgenstien 'found it intoerable that a war was going on and he was teaching philosophy'.

So he got a job as a dispensary porter at Guy's Hospital in London, delivering medicine to patients in the wards.

And that is exactly where Ron Elisha's play starts.

It's a two-hander with Richard Stemp as Wittgenstein and Ben Woodhall as a young, illiterate Londoner, John Smith, who has just had his leg amputated due to osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer.

The play charts the developing relationship between these two very different men.

Of course, it's a clash of cultures and culture, background, intellect, education, motivation and much more besides.

Initially, Wittgenstein is clinically aloof and pedantic, providing some very funny, laugh-out-loud moments that all sections of the audience appreciated immensely.

As the story unfolds, we learn more about the life of each man - it's not wholly about Wittgenstein.

John Smith's lowly lifestyle, unflinching beliefs and suffering soften Wittgenstein’s manner and, as one might expect, a friendship (and more) develops.

I suspect director Dave Spencer might have fallen off his directorial chair on receiving Mr Elisha's script direct from the author's printer.

It's one of those stories that stage directors must dream about - and add the fact that it is a wonderfully-crafted script, filled with an almost perfect balance of comedy and poignancy, and you have a dream come true.

Dream scripts, though, can always go awry.

Mr Spencer, however, doesn't put a foot wrong in bringing this moving story to life, avoiding any hint of cloying sentimentality.

He's aided in his endeavours by two important factors.

First, he has two very fine actors who both produce exceptional, riveting performances.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (18991951)

Wittgenstein 1930 - Austrian National Library

Richard Stemp has a distinct physical likeness to Wittgenstein as he was around the time the play is set.

But Mr Stemp also makes a remarkably believable and moving transition from punctilious, indifferent academic to caring confidant.

And Ben Woodhall is equally effective in describing an honest, enthusiastic and well-meaning man who, as the play proceeds, succumbs to unendurable pain.

Mr Spencer also has the advantage of an evocative period setting - the Second World War - which perfectly complements the script, offering radio clips of the time and ideal music such as Vera Lynn's 'We'll Meet Again', which still has the power to send goose bumps rippling down one's spine - and it doesn't fail in this emotionally-charged piece.

The Soul of Wittgenstein is an admirable example of powerful drama and superb writing - we laugh, we (almost?) cry and at the same time we learn something about other human beings, and in so doing learn more about ourselves.

I rarely feel motivated to see the same production of a show, but I would readily see this again tonight ... and perhaps even the next night.

Wonderful stuff.

External reviews

The Reviews Hub - Stephen Bates

5 star rating

"Comedy and pathos are blended perfectly in Dave Spencer's impeccably acted production."

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