Double click to insert body text here ...
Following a critically acclaimed development season at the Kings Head Theatre, The Soul of Wittgenstein transfers to the Omnibus Theatre for a 3-weeks-run to headline the 96Festival.
We chat with King’s Head graduate director Dave Spencer on his further development of The Soul of Wittgenstein
Hi Dave, congratulations on headlining at the 96 Festival. You had a great run in Festival 46 at King’s Head Theatre with several 5 star reviews, how did this help you to take the play forward?
It’s just so much easier to get your foot in the door if there are other people saying ‘this is a such a great play, I wish it would transfer’. That was the overwhelming response we had from the work-in-progress run in 2016, and I’m so glad that we are now presenting a full run of the play. Critical response was so brilliant and all of it suggested that the piece was not actually about philosophy but about this relationship between Ludwig and John, a philosopher and an illiterate Cockney. By all accounts, Wittgenstein was apparently quite a difficult person to like, but I think we have really succeeded in humanising him with this play.
Could you remind us of the story?
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, worked as a porter in Guy’s Hospital during WWII. He spent the majority of his time there advising those he was supposed to be giving medication to not to take the pills. I imagine that this can’t have made him very popular with his employers. We pick up this story on his first day on the job, where he meets a (fictionalised) cheeky chappy going by the name of John Smith - a Cockney who happens to be illiterate. Wittgenstein finds out this fact and makes it his personal mission to teach John to read. After that, the rest is history.
What’s the importance of the play for you?
The play is about everything that is unsaid. It’s about how we humans communicate non-verbally. About what it means to not say certain things. What can we omit and still be heard? When we are silent, is there still someone listening? This play says yes. Someone is there for you, and that person, for that time, is the most important thing in the world - the only person that matters. The only person that exists.
Writer Ron Elisha has already got a long list of credits having been produced internationally and won a number of awards. Is he attempting to conquer London now?
Ron is such a fantastic writer - and so prolific. He has a catalogue of work and Witt is just one of the gems, which I am privileged enough to work on. He has a voice that deserves to be heard, not just because he writes so well but because he writes about history in a way that really makes it present. He certainly deserves to conquer London - in my view he is up there with the great writers who have work on in London at the moment (Martin McDonagh, Eugene O'Neill, David Eldridge, Alvin McCraney, and David Mamet). I want this production to shine a spotlight on his talent, and I think we can do it.
How have you been developing THE SOUL OF WITTGENSTEIN for Omnibus Theatre?
More rehearsals! At the King’s Head, we had just one week of rehearsals, so we really had to let the play live or die by the script and the performances of Richard Stemp (Ludwig) and Ben Woodhall (John). However, this time round, we have a full design team, a full run, and a full rehearsal period, so if we got such great critical response with the piece last time, I can only dream of what the reaction will be like in February!
How does THE SOUL OF WITTGENSTEIN fit into the canon of work we are seeing in London?
I think that this piece is part of the zeitgeist of historical drama that we are seeing at the moment. What with Mary Stuart’s return, Hamilton, and then Netflix’s The Crown. There is something so current about history right now, and I think it is because of the trying times we are living in, that people are either seeking out answers in the events of the past, or are looking for the comfort of times gone by.
Humanising a historical figure is a classic theme of drama, and Witt really does this, foregrounding the humanity of Ludwig, showing him for what he truly was, a man who put up philosophy as a barrier between him and the world.
As a relatively new director, what have you learnt is the most important thing in working with your actors on this script?
To listen and to facilitate. Whilst working on this, and working throughout my emergent career, I am constantly reminded of Peter Brook’s words - ‘It takes a long while for a director to cease thinking in terms of the result he desires and instead concentrate on discovering the source of energy in the actor from which true impulses arise.’ Richard and Ben are so wonderfully full to the brim with ideas and motivations and intriguing propositions, that I am constantly overawed by the things we discover in the room. I see my job as fielding discussion, about sifting through and panning for the gold that they have produced. And then, as a final responsibility, to ensure that what we have discovered is clear to the audience. Clarity is my main goal and something I am always questioning and reassessing.
Finally, what’s going to be different about the upcoming production compared to its run in King’s Head Theatre?
The responsibility of headlining such a progressive festival is huge and I think that we have risen to this task. Rather than last time, where there were four of us working on the piece, this time round we have such brilliant sound and lighting design, an incredible set, and so many people working on it and using their specific expertise to produce the best piece of theatre we can. And I hope that the audience will see all of this work in the finished product! It’s so exciting what we’re seeing at this early stage - I can’t wait to see where we are on the first night!
Presented by Another Soup in association with the King’s Head Theatre
THE SOUL OF WITTGENSTEIN by Ron Elisha
Directed by Dave Spencer
Omnibus Theatre, SW4, 6 – 25 February 2018 (Tues-Sat 7.30pm, Sun 4pm, running time: 80 minutes)
Tickets: £15 / £12 Concessions (plus £1 booking fee)
Box office: 020 7498 4699 or online at www.omnibus-clapham
1941. Guy’s Hospital, London. A battered copy of War and Peace. An illiterate Cockney dying of cancer and a philosopher handing out pills. Their world is determined by these facts. But is it defined by them? Written by Ron Elisha, winner of four Australian Writers’ Guild Awards, The Soul of Wittgenstein is a pertinent, engrossing, confrontational, yet tender, new play. It asks what happens when we open up, when we put aside our differences, and when we force ourselves to feel. If a dying man questioned what you were doing with your life, how would you answer? And would it be something that you were willing to admit?
1996 was a year of break-ups. Take That split. Arthur Scargill left the Labour Party. Princess Diana divorced Prince Charles. But in a year of break-ups, there was one massive coming together. Clapham Common hosted the Pride after-march party. This February Omnibus Theatre celebrates that landmark event. 96 is a festival of theatre and music that champions progress, achievement and possibility for everyone.
Ron Elisha is an award-winning Australian playwright, whose plays have been produced throughout Australia, New Zealand, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Poland, Israel and France, and have won a number of awards, including four Australian Writers’ Guild Awards, the Mitch Matthews Award (2006) and the Houston International Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay.
Dave Spencer’s directing credits include Window (Bread & Roses Theatre), Victorian & Gay (Hope Theatre), Lovett + Todd and Dorian Gray (both King’s Head Theatre). He was recently associate director on Family Tree by Night Kitchen Cabaret, a co-production with RADA Festival, and on the Kings Head Theatre’s production of La Boheme at Trafalgar Studios in the West End.
We chat with King’s Head graduate director Dave Spencer on his further development of the play.