This modern classic inspired by a reali life meeting of great minds blends low farce with intellectual muscle
Farce is a notoriously tricky thing to get right, but it’s never been harder to manage than in Terry Johnson’s wildly ambitious play, which teeters between humour one minute and horror the next.
The year: 1938. The place: the genteel surrounds of Hampstead, London, where the ailing father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, has settled after fleeing Nazi Austria. Battling the end-stage jaw cancer that would eventually kill him, Freud (a very aged-up Jo Turner) is roused from a fitful slumber by a tapping on the French doors of his study. On the other side is a young woman, Jessica (Miranda Daughtry), soaked to the skin and demanding to see him. When he refuses, she threatens to slit her wrists with a cutthroat razor. When he refuses again, she strips and hides in a cupboard. Unable to be rid of her, he relents, she takes her place on his famous couch and the consultation begins. Except, as he soon discovers, what Jessica is after is not so much an explanation of her own demons but a re-enactment of those of his former patient, Rebecca S, some 30 years before.
Complicating the situation further are two other arrivals: that of Spanish master surrealist, Salvador Dali (Michael McStay), come to pay homage to the only man he feels understands the unconscious as he does; and Freud’s friend and doctor Abraham Yahuda (Wendy Strehlow, cast gender-blind). Both soon become hopelessly embroiled in the drama unfolding in the study (set by Anna Gardiner).
Johnson is commonly compared to fellow British playwright Tom Stoppard, and there’s more than a hint of Stoppard’s works (particularly Travesties) both in Hysteria’s absurd wordplay and rapid-fire witticisms and in Johnson’s use of a real-life meeting of minds (Dali did pay a visit to Freud in 1938) as the springboard for a fanciful flight of intellectual what-ifs.
But Johnson takes it into much darker territory: the comedy of Jessica’s re-enactment soon becomes less of a laugh and more a startling examination of Freud’s changing views on infant sexuality (after positing that hysteria was the result of sexual abuse, Freud abruptly recanted his opinion several years later, claiming it was instead the subconscious desires of the children themselves) and the effect of this change on his patients.
This seesawing between comedy and tragedy is extreme, and it’s something director Susanna Dowling never quite manages to bring together, leaning too heavily on farce at the expense of real feeling. The cast work hard to keep the madcap vibe going, although both Turner as Freud and McStay as Dali veer a little too much towards parody in their portrayals of these historical giants, so that the genuinely interesting mix of ideas and questions the play raises never quite engage the audience as they could.
Newcomer and recent NIDA grad Miranda Daultry occasionally over-eggs it as the distraught Jessica but has some genuinely moving moments, while stage veteran Wendy Strehlow is understated by comparison as the bumbling Yahuda trying to understand the chaos.
Despite these shortcomings, there’s still plenty of intellectual grist for the mill here, both in the compare-and-contrast approach of Freud and Dali’s views of the unconscious, and later as the emotional cost to Jessica of Freud’s theories is brought devastatingly home.
But for the most part, these two extremes are simply too far apart to work together, and the cohesion needed to make this play feel like a satisfying whole remains frustratingly out of reach.
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39 Burton Street
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