The Soul of Wittgenstein, by Ron Elisha, is a sensitive and clever two-hander set during the Second World War. A patient and his hospital attendant develop a deep relationship based on learning facts and discovering life. The pair are from different worlds – one an illiterate Cockney navvy and the other an Austrian-British philosopher. They navigate their disparate practices of language and thinking to find common ground and real friendship. An argument the men have about codes of language and clarity, as Smith backs up his use of rhyming slang, was unforgettably funny. It was testament too, to the real chemistry that the actors have on stage together.
Richard Stemp (F*cking Men) played the highly-educated Ludwig Wittgenstein with humorous gentility. In hiding as a hospital ward attendant, the philosopher met John Smith (Ben Woodhall) delivering medication to the bedside. I assumed that his refinement, plumb tones and multi-lingual explanations about words would form a character who was snobbish and exasperating. But from the first tangential, matter-of-fact and spirited exchange about the suicide of his predecessor, Stemp created an intelligently amusing character. Layers were revealed behind his austere commitment to leaving the unknowable unsaid, to find at the end a man who can weep at the loss of love.
Woodhall, bed bound after the amputation of his leg to a sarcoma, handled Smith’s developing curiosity about the deeper aspects of life and death brilliantly. Wide eyed, often his simplicity of expression seemed to deal with the big questions with more aptitude than Wittgenstein’s smatterings of Greek and Latin. As he learned to read, books became both a joy and a method for dealing with the pain of his illness; a palliative treatment more potent than the pills Wittgenstein was employed to deliver. The ironies of the title of War and Peace and opening pages of A Tale of Two Cities, which Smith encounters, were much like the tension at the heart of this production. The two men’s soaring love and learning was backdropped by Smith’s deterioration into sickness.
A hospital bed and bedside table were complemented by historically accurate bottles, bowls and implements. Vera Lynn and string quartets ebbed and flowed with the time. The books were old hardbacks with gold embossed titles. Smith’s pyjamas were buttoned up and blue. That is all to say that the design of the production captured the spirit of its time with detail but without fuss.
The story of The Soul of Wittgenstein was based upon the real life of prominent twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was taught by Bertrand Russell. But I feel no need to look up the historical figure, so extraordinary was the character I encountered in the play. The whole piece found a rhythm of living and passing of time that never failed to compel. The two strands of decline into illness and ascension into love were perfectly paced to form a tragically beautiful play.
Festival 46 is at the King’s Head Theatre until 31 July. Find out more on the King’s Head Theatre website. Tweet about the show with #Witt.