Review: The Soul of Wittgenstein
Photo by Lidia Crisafulli
Richard Stemp (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
Ben Woodhall (John Smith)
Guy’s Hospital, London.
A battered copy of War and Peace.
An illiterate Cockney dying of cancer and a philosopher handing out pills.
Is this all that defines them, or could they become something more?
Written by Ron Elisha, winner of four Australian Writers' Guild Awards, The Soul of Wittgenstein is a "perfectly paced … tragically beautiful play" (A Younger Theatre).
It is simultaneously pertinent and engrossing, amusingly confrontational, yet tender.
Directed by award-winning Dave Spencer, the play asks what happens when we open up, when we put aside our differences, and when we force ourselves to feel.
ActDrop reviewed this play in 2016 - read our 5 star review here.
I first saw this fascinating play back in 2016 at the King's Head Theatre where it aired with the same acting team and director as we find in this current production.
It's a powerful drama, richly endowed with both humour and tragedy.
The basic concept for the story is one of those gems that history, accident or fate surprisingly throws up, offering a rare gift to a dramatist.
It is based on the fact that the world-renowned philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, already a professor at Cambridge at the start of World War II, found it intolerable that he was teaching at the elite university whilst a monstrous war was raging.
So he decided to work as a hospital dispensary porter in London.
That gave writer Ron Elisha the chance to create a moving play by contrasting Wittgenstein with another man, an illiterate cockney in hospital suffering from an incurable cancer.
Oddly, and perhaps a little implausibly, the two men form a bond and it's this developing friendship and dependence that the play focuses on, revealing to us along the way much about the great philosopher as well as the chipper cockney who is afraid of dying and firmly believes in god.
Of course, the setting is also of fundamental importance.
Outside the hospital ward, where the action takes place, is the greater conflict of war and this is a vital element to fix the historical background in terms of why Wittgenstein found himself working in a hospital, and also to contrast his prodigious philosophical constructs with his own fragility and inner conflicts as a human being.
That means the play is not merely about a relationship between two men, but juxtaposes bigger philosophical, political and social issues with the personal.
The production has changed somewhat since I last saw it.
With more time and resources for development, new features have been added and some discarded.
Sometimes, necessity is indeed the mother of invention and produces remarkable results.
That, I think, was true of the King's Head version where there was no set to speak of and a simple, unadorned bed housed the cockney patient.
And, as I recall at least, a bare light bulb hung over the set (suggesting the frugal nature of the times) and the audience sat along three sides of the acting area, almost as if we were huddled in a tube station sheltering from the blitz.
In this new production, with end-on staging, the audience is more remote and separated from the action, and Mayou Trikerioti's design introduces a wooden, slatted structure behind the action which is far too sparklingly clean, painted as it is in brilliant white, and lending a modern, clinical feel to proceedings.
It doesn't suggest the austerity or bleakness of the period (or the rather dour interior design of hospitals of the 1940s) and there's more clean white in both the hospital bed and the porter's trolley which Wittgenstein laboriously pushes around.
A new scene has been inserted at the beginning of the piece where Richard Stemp's naked Wittgenstein is ironing his clothes - including underwear and socks.
The aim, I suppose, is to establish that the character is pointedly meticulous, precise and pedantic.
However, in the previous production, the script itself did a fine job of achieving the very same objective in almost the first lines of dialogue (and with economy and considerable humorous effect).
Furthermore, we lose some important action towards the end of the play where John Smith previously invited Wittgenstein to get into his bed - now, he simply lies on top.
In my view at least, this changes the essence and meaning of the scene substantially and detrimentally since we lose Smith's intent to show (through his actions) reciprocal kindness and support.
A couple of things also struck me while watching this play again - first, I don't believe people in 1940's London would have "thrown bangers (sausages) on the grill" since they would have more likely cooked them in a pan, and even today we English don't wear a 'robe' in hospital or at home - we wear 'dressing gowns'.
Minor points, perhaps, given the overall high quality of the writing.
But, though I didn't spot them the first time round, they jarred a little on this occasion because they highlighted a lack of attention to providing authentic atmosphere, also manifested in the ommission of evocative radio clips used in the initial production, though Vera Lynn's 'We'll Meet Again' is still appropriately in evidence.
Even given those gripes, this is nonetheless a moving and powerful play, and Richard Stemp and Ben Woodhall still provide hugely compelling, wonderfully watchable characters, and the story is a riveting treat with humour well-balanced with poignancy.
However, this production does demonstrate the old adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", and director Dave Spencer might have been better advised to focus on recreating the special magic he conjured so ably and effectively (and with almost no budget and little rehearsal time) at the King's Head, than try to re-examine it afresh.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Omnibus Theatre
Our show listing for The Soul of Wittgenstein
Read our reviews' policy