The Soul of Wittgenstein, which first appeared at the excellent King’s Head Theatre two years ago, is once again with us in London, with the same cast and core crew but this time at Omnibus Theatre in Clapham. ‘Wittgenstein’ is not a word which is spoken at any point, but it doesn’t need to be: this play is personal, on a first-name (false and real) basis with the philosopher, and the writer Ron Elisha clearly has a respect and sensitivity to the man and his work which infuses this sympathetic and loving play.
Richard Stemp and Ben Woodhall are both assured in their roles – Woodhall, as East End amputee John, is charming and his cockney accent only occasionally reminds you of Taron Egerton in Kingsman (perhaps we only find fault with the accent nowadays because it’s so relatively unfamiliar now, so nearly vanished). Stemp is by turns fondly smiling and intense, managing his forays into language and knowledge without turning us off. The set, representing a ward in Guy’s Hospital during World War II, is very well put together by Mayou Trikerioti and Cecilia Trono: white wooden slats make an abstract design over the stage, suggesting the sterile surroundings without resorting to bare realism, and it works to Dave Spencer’s direction with efficient purpose.
Elisha’s script is largely a tight beast. Knowing the premise, of Wittgenstein working under an assumed name as a trolley pusher at Guy’s during the war, you can guess the story beats without too much difficulty, and they are indeed all here. The two characters learn things from each other. Wittgenstein expounds (lightly). There are comedic differences in experience and perspective. They come to care about each other. There weren’t any moments which challenged me or lifted the play above its concept and its expected progression, but it’s a pleasure to see a work centred around the health – and coughing, and brown piss, and loss of limb, and soul – of a nobody, rather than a king.
Wittgenstein’s sexuality is handled with compassion quite touchingly, and the rapport between the two actors carries the play along easily, particularly in a drunk scene together. The opening, in which we see Wittgenstein’s need for precision even in constructing his identity for his lowly hospital work, as he irons each item of clothing before dressing himself, is as well-judged as the use much later of an air-raid siren but with the sound reduced, possibly elongated, until it resembles the buzzing of a fly. And being shown these details gives us as much or more than the same meaning conveyed in language at other parts in the play. This is an awareness, in terms of theatre, which we share with Wittgenstein.
£10 tickets for The Soul of Wittgenstein are available exclusively to AYT readers by clicking here.
The Soul of Wittgenstein is playing at the Omnibus Theatre until the 25 February.
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli