This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com
At first glance, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian-born philosopher, would not seem to be an obvious subject for a comedy, albeit one tinged with tragedy. However, this remarkably accomplished new 70-minute play by established Australian playwright Ron Elisha dispels doubts very quickly.
Of Jewish descent and, for three of his childhood years, a classmate of Adolf Hitler, Wittgenstein taught at Cambridge University from 1927 onwards, but, during World War II, he worked as a porter at a London hospital. Elisha gives a fictional account of the academic’s relationship with John Smith, a young terminally ill patient in the hospital at the time of the Blitz.
The play is a variation on the familiar odd couple formula, spiced with enough wit and originality to make it fresh. Wittgenstein teaches the illiterate John to read, introducing him to Tolstoy and Dickens; John reciprocates with lessons in Cockney rhyming slang. Gifted and able-bodied, Wittgenstein suffers from fits of depression, while the stricken John is irrepressibly cheerful.
John condenses Wittgenstein’s 75-page thesis into just eight words as Elisha makes the point that the experiences of living are simple and do not need deep analysis. He shows us icy philosophical theory being moderated by real life and melted gown by human warmth.
Comedy and pathos are blended perfectly in Dave Spencer’s impeccably acted production. Richard Stemp’s Wittgenstein begins with the air of TV’s Frasier, an arrogant intellectual whose pomposity is set to be pinpricked regularly, but then the actor conveys the gradual softening of the character brought about by compassion and friendship. Ben Woodhall’s bedridden John is a joy, uneducated and cheeky, but uncannily perceptive. The pair bounce Elisha’s sharp lines off each other with precision timing.
It can be argued that the ending is slightly misjudged, but, otherwise, the play is consistently sure-footed when tackling tricky themes and this production merits a longer run than the four performances that it is getting here as part of the King’s Head Theatre’s Festival46 new writing season. Rarely can the dry subject of Philosophy have been made so funny and moving.
Performance date: 22 July 2016
Photo: Chris Tribble