Biographical plays have an uncanny nature of sliding between the imagined, the authentic, and the artistic. While delving into the nature of a person and their history, part of their mission is to make meaning from an individual’s existence and extend it outwards. It’s a tricky business, and not only because an audience’s background knowledge will vary. It’s a sort of searching for the soul, finding where to begin, and knowing that what might be factually true may not ring as true as fiction.
While Ron Elisha’s The Soul of Wittgenstein is at first a thoughtful and considered crystallization of Wittgenstein’s later years, it fails to find that sought-after balance. During WWII, Wittgenstein decided he had no place pursuing a life of intellectualism and moved from Cambridge to London to work at Guy’s Hospital. Elisha chooses to start here, and intelligently focuses on a fictional relationship between Wittgenstein (played by Richard Stemp) and patient John Smith (Ben Woodhall). The audience meets Wittgenstein through Smith, who speaks in rhyming slang with a thick Cockney accent. Not knowing how to read, Smith is taught the value of words, and he and Wittgenstein develop a mutual exchange of knowledge, of experience, and of love.
While perhaps a slightly conventional relationship (the teacher who is in turn educated by the student), Elisha manages to colour both characters with witty dialogue. Stemp plays Wittgenstein as a sort of Sherlockian savant, a genius whose intellectual ferocity hinders his social skills. His manner oscillates between being tender and being robotic (C-3PO-like in outpouring information), although Stemp occasionally stumbles through his lines. Woodhall is curious yet cool as Smith grappling with a life-threatening osteosarcoma and the loss of his leg.
The script fights its medium at times. Unlike biopics, bio-plays have an added restriction of time and space and can’t use the luxuries of visual montage and location shifts to thread together a person’s experiences. Director Dave Spencer has a hard time finding an appropriate rhythm for Wittgenstein’s daily rounds, and a clunky fade-out and fade-in (from when Wittgenstein begins reading War and Peace to when he ends) exemplifies the production’s difficulty in representing the passing of time and the flourishing of their relationship.
Elisha does peripherally engage with Wittgenstein’s philosophy, and these moments are some of the play’s finest. ‘Words place a limit on the universe,’ says Stemp, and the nature of language and its relation to knowledge begins to creep onto the stage. How language shapes thought and the limitations of what we can know are questions which tantalize a man who also feels indebted to ‘do his part’. It’s the tension between Wittgenstein’s pursuit of knowledge and his responsibility as a citizen that fuels his relationship with Smith, and from that simmers a deep affection between the two men.
Unfortunately, it all boils over in a frustrating ending which undoes most of the work’s subtly. A poorly executed, unnecessary, and derivative climax deflates the complexities not only of each character but of their relationship as a whole. It jars with the established characters and feels like a forced finale, with Wittgenstein mentioning ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. The Soul of Wittgenstein‘s potential to resonate, to make meaning from the stitching together of fact and fiction, is sadly dampened, and ultimately the search for the soul comes up short.
The Soul of Wittgenstein is on until 26th August 2016. For more information, click here.