Following a critically acclaimed run at the King’s Head Theatre, The Soul of Wittgenstein comes to the Omnibus Theatre for a 3-weeks-run as part of the 96 Festival.

Guy’s Hospital, London, 1941. 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.

We chatted to director, Dave Spencer, to find out more.

What can you tell us about The Soul of Wittgenstein?

Wittgenstein, the 20th century philosopher, gave up philosophy briefly during WWII and worked as a porter in Guy’s Hospital, giving out pills to patients. Whilst there he spent a lot of time trying to convince patients not to actually take the medication because he thought it wouldn’t do them any good. The play starts at the very beginning of his first shift, where he meets John Smith, a Cockney who is illiterate. Ludwig finds this out and decides to spend his time teaching John to read. After that, the rest is history.

It’s one of the headline productions of 96 Festival, what kind of responsibility does that bring?

96 Festival is a big deal, and such a progressive event, that has developed and grown in the several years Omnibus has been developing such work. It is a great privilege to be headlining the festival and I think all we can do is tell the story that Ron Elisha has written. It’s a fantastic tale and deserves to be told, and I think it will speak to everyone who comes to see it, no matter their history or background or identity. To be leading the charge of such diverse, diverting, and deserving work is really quite something, and I am so glad we are involved.

Have any changes been made since its last run at The King’s Head Theatre?

The King’s Head Theatre run was very much a work-in-progress piece – we only had one week of rehearsals and an incredibly small production team (myself and a producer, who was also on the theatre’s Directing Programme at the time). This time round, we have a full team of creatives, who are all doing such a fabulous job in realising this play’s full potential.

How does Ron Elisha’s writing inspire you?

Ron is such a great writer and it’s really superb to be able to work with him. He has such a deep understanding of the human psyche and just writes brilliant, well-formed, deep characters. He is also a joy to collaborate with and I greatly enjoy working with him on the dramaturgy of his plays and how best to realise their messages in performance.

It’s set in 1941, how will it appeal to modern audiences?

The play may well be a matter of history, but in reality, it is just two men in a room together, where nothing outside that room matters. Their relationship is what is key, as well as the way in which they find themselves and find each other over the course of the play. I defy anyone to come and see the show and not feel a twinge in their heartstrings.

There is also something to be said about the proliferation of historical fiction or fictionalised accounts of history in the theatrical, televisual, and cinematic world today. The Darkest Hour with Gary Oldman, Netflix’s The Crown, Hamilton, Mary Stuart, and many more – all of this points to a deep modern desire to see history come to life before our very eyes and learn from either its lessons or from the mistakes of the past. I think with this play we are tapping into that and will give the audience the historical and human satisfaction that they crave.

The Soul of Wittgenstein is at The Omnibus Theatre as part of Festival 96 6th – 25th February


Greg is an award-winning writer with a huge passion for theatre. He has appeared on stage, as well as having directed several plays in his native Scotland. Greg is the founder and editor of Theatre Weekly


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