Hysteria

Mon 27th August – Sat 1st September 2012

reviews

Thomas Stell

at 03:36 on 29th Aug 2012

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In 1938 Sigmund Freud, a year before his death, was visited by Salvador Dali, upon whose work the ideas of the former had had great influence. The meeting seems to have been the original inspiration for this play, though here it has been fictionalised, other fictional characters have been added, and the whole thing has been translated into farce.

Freud is old and ill, suffering badly from the oral cancer that will soon kill him. He has fled Europe because of the Nazis and taken a house in North London. It is here, in his study, that we see him, receiving possibly real, possibly hallucinatory visits from a doctor, Yahuda, from Dali, and from Jessica, the daughter of one of his early pupils. According to the conventions of the genre, the three are bundled in and out of closets, remove their clothes and make inconvenient entrances, often through French windows.

But there is something serious meant and Freud’s work and his methods are criticised. Jessica tells us the story of her mother, referred to as Rebecca S, who came to him because of her hysteria, anorexia and agoraphobia. Freud at the time decided rape by her father during childhood must be the cause. Rebecca recovered. A year later Freud revised his theories; he was finding, going by his ideas of the time, that almost all his female patients must have been sexually abused by their fathers when young. This being impossible, he reasoned that female hysterics must invent such episodes of their early childhood because of repressed desire. Rebecca, her account no longer believed, died not long after.

Now it seems, from what Jessica says, that her mother had indeed been subjected to sexual abuse. Freud, so Jessica says, is to blame for her relapse by causing her to be doubted. But the case against Freud is not convincing. Certainly he made mistakes, but they do not seem to have been out of negligence. Nor is Jessica, played by Indira Varma, really likeable. She seems concerned principally with scoring points off Freud, and laughs rather meanly and thoughtlessly when he mentions his theory of penis envy. Conversely with Freud, played by Antony Sher, we are inclined to sympathise. We are shown an extremely earnest man, concerned only with the truth. He seems unfairly put-upon – and the Austrian-Jewish accent Sher assumes is perfect for this, there is nothing of the gimmick about it – by those with preoccupations less noble. There is something wrong with Yahuda’s insistence that Freud not argue Moses was an Egyptian prince, it being a time when the Jews need hope and faith in their past heroes more than ever. The pursuit of truth should not be impeded by concerns over what beliefs it may be thought expedient to hold.

Dali is rather a minor character, included it seems almost chiefly for the comedy of his extravagant mannerisms, his movement a series of dramatic poses, and his exaggerated praise of himself. He is played well by Will Keen, who really gets this extravagance, but the script does not allow us to take his ideas as seriously as those of the other characters. Surrealism is there to be the butt of jokes (when Dali, as a short form of psychoanalysis, shows Freud The Metamorphosis of Narcissus and asks what he is suffering from, he is told “eyesight”), and to provide diversions, such as an unexpected appearance of Dali’s lobster telephone (one of the Surrealist Objects Functioning Symbolically) in place of Freud’s own.

"Hysteria" may be described best as an old-fashioned, unsophisticated farce into which intellectual elements have been improbably, sometimes rather awkwardly, inserted. The structure is definitely that of farce; there is some physical comedy, a good many one-line gags and even mistaken identity. But in between fooling around, the characters do have some serious discussions. The problem is that none of the comedy is particularly funny, as there are too many weak double entendres and some of the lines are too predictable, and that the criticism of Freud is too clearly wrongheaded to be worth much thought. Antony Sher’s performance and that of Keen are remarkable, but I’m afraid the play itself isn’t brilliant.

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