‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ These are Ludwig Wittgenstein’s most famous words and, strangely enough, not the most accurate description of this new play about his life. For ‘Wittgenstein (The Crooked Roads)’ is undaunted by his famously incomprehensible ideas. It’s a hugely imaginative production that grabs philosophical enquiry by the shoulders and gives it a good shake.
Ludwig Wittgenstein is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century. Spanning most of his life, from his earlier encounters with Bertrand Russell in Cambridge to a final trip to New York, this is a play which deals with the man, his ideas and his disillusionment.
It’s clear from the start that this is to be no normal rendition of Wittgenstein’s life. Pre-recorded actors flicker on television screens and interact with the live cast (perplexing), a First World War artillery bombardment is evoked by rattling chairs on the floor (ingenious) and cigarettes are replaced by balloons (just plain bizarre). That’s not mentioning the moments played out atop a small table, and the actors playing multiple characters in one scene.
This is a show brimming with ideas and, while they sometimes seem a little unnecessary, these playful techniques never smack of gimmickry. Rather they lend a lightness to proceeding, a sense of fun which aids in the digestion of some baffling philosophical ideas.
At the core of the play is Rob Heap's fine performance. His straight and twitching portrayal of Wittgenstein captures perfectly the philosopher’s frustrations and humanity. It’s an intensive performance that is played off beautifully against his more whimsical companions.
Looking about, it's clear whom Wittgenstein has attracted. Tweed and corduroy abound, suggesting a partly academic audience. This is, we feel, a play for those with a little philosophical grounding. After all, its writer, William Lyons, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin. Yet this learned background is part of the play’s success.
‘Wittgenstein’ is not afraid to air philosophical ideas. Did we understand them all? No. Will you understand them? Probably not. Does that matter? Not a bit. In fact that’s the whole point. As we find in the brilliant viva scene, very few people understood Wittgenstein, not even his previous teachers.
Wittgenstein (The Crooked Roads) runs at Riverside Studios until 7 May. Tickets £15 (£10 concs.)
By Jon Davis