Monday, 23 September 2013

Theatre review: Hysteria

Before he goes to Stratford-upon-Avon next year to take up his new position as First Lady of the RSC, Sir Antony Sher is playing Terry Johnson's version of Sigmund Freud at Hampstead. The writer also directs this revival of Hysteria which sees the psychiatrist shortly before his death, living in a large Swiss Cottage house having fled the Nazis. It's 5am when Freud is disturbed in his study by Jessica (Lydia Wilson,) an apparently suicidal young woman fixated on one particular case history the psychiatrist had documented, and which had helped him formulate his theses. She is still around, hiding in the bathroom, the next day when two more visitors are entertained: Freud's physician and friend Dr Yahuda (David Horovitch) and the artist Salvador Dalí (Adrian Schiller,) there to pay tribute to the man he credits with inspiring the surrealist movement, and perhaps even gain his approval.

Inspired by a real-life meeting between the two men, Johnson essentially analyses Freud through a filter of Dalí, and the results are extraordinary - not always in a good way. Starting as rather a gentle comedy, Hysteria then launches into all-out farce, before lurching into an entirely different direction as Jessica's visit opens up deadly serious unfinished business.

Jessica's arrival in a thunderstorm means she's soon stripping out of her wet clothes, and the fact that she tricks Freud into thinking she's left when in fact she's hidden in the bathroom means she's ready to be the crux of a classic farcical setup when the serious Dr Yahuda arrives to criticise his friend for an ill-timed article suggesting Moses wasn't a Jew. The ridiculousness is turned up a notch when Schiller's Dalí turns out to be a comedy stereotype of a lisping Spaniard with an armpit fetish.

These comic shenanigans are at times very funny, at others less successful - a running gag about snails fell flat for me and although I agree that when you've got Freud and a load of women's underwear flying about, a "Freudian slip" joke is compulsory, the execution left something to be desired. And then we find out (if we hadn't guessed it) Jessica's true interest in the case history of "Rebecca S" and we're in an area of intense drama that jars with what's come before. Of course, this abrupt disconnect between the styles on show is the whole point, what with the subconscious not knowing there's theatrical conventions to adhere to, and the cast cope admirably with the huge range demanded of them. Knowing why it's being done doesn't mean, though, that it's entirely satisfying to watch.

The mechanics of what's come before are laid open in an overtly surrealistic climax that features a quadrupleSEVERE VADGE WARNING!and a spectacular coup from Lez Brotherston's set that inevitably becomes the most memorable part of the evening (in the interval Laurie grumbled about the set featuring a prominent clock that didn't work, but I think it's fair to say it justified its presence in the second act.) But like the walls, the piece doesn't entirely hang together. In fact given there's a good reason for them, the jumps in tone might not have been a issue if the play's themes weren't sometimes confused too: The idea of Freud appearing to undermine his own religion a couple of days after Kristallnacht is never fully developed, and distracts from the criticism of his imposing his own hangups on the people he was meant to be treating. Hysteria opens up enough avenues of discussion to make it worth a look and features some individually successful scenes, but the whole is undoubtedly an oddity.

Hysteria by Terry Johnson is booking until the 12th of October at Hampstead Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

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