When one thinks of plays that revolve around ‘philosophy’, overtures to Tom Stoppard and wartime ethics come to mind. True to form, Ron Elisha’s play is set during the Second World War, but while one of the protagonists is steeped in profound thoughts, the play is so much more than an intellectual exercise.
Set in Guy’s Hospital in 1941, the play begins with a porter makes his morning rounds, delivering drugs to the patients. John Smith (Ben Woodhall) is perturbed by the stranger that stands before him, a change from the usual routine. The porter’s precise answers to Smith’s open-ended colloquialisms sets the tone for their exchanges in the early part of the play.
What next transpires is a ‘Pygmalion’ story of Shavian proportions, as ‘Johan Schmidt’ the porter (Richard Stemp) helps the illiterate patient to read and ‘more importantly’ learns to appreciate the power of words. Conversely, so does ‘Schmidt’ – placing less importance on exactitude, and more on their context and purpose.
So why is a man, who for all intents and purposes a philologist, spending his time dispensing drugs? These, plus many other questions are answered throughout the play as ‘Schmidt’ recounts his former days of living in Austria, spending time at the same school as Adolf Hitler… What was the future Chancellor of Germany like as a youth? Did he have his flair for oration back then?
Asides from being historical matters of interest, there is a resonance in ‘Schmidt’s’ wartime situation and the current status quo, where as a naturalised British citizen, he’s viewed in some quarters with suspicion.
The heart of the play though is the men finding ‘middle ground’, common experiences where language is ineffective. The spectre of death is also no stranger to either of them, though for one person, they may be reacquainted with it sooner than they would like.
Amidst all the references to literature, history and semantics, director Dave Spencer never lets the plethora of subjects discussed obfuscate the building of trust and understanding between the men. The play’s subject matter is very different to much of what’s on offer on the Fringe, but the calibre of the production make it an obvious choice to headline the Omnibus Theatre’s ’96 Festival.
© Michael Davis 2018
The Soul of Wittgenstein runs at Omnibus Clapham until 25th February.