Writer: Terry Johnson
Director: Terry Johnson
Reviewer: Rosie Wheat
The Public Reviews Rating:
Laughter comes hand in hand with the dark psyche of Freud in Johnson’s hit 1993 play; Hysteria. A bizarre mix of farce, fact and fiction, the play could have been an evening of light entertainment, with its mistaken identities, lucrative explanations and compromising positions, were it not for the serious questions being raised.
In the middle of the night, with rain lashing at the study windows, Freud is interrupted by a strange young woman rapping at the door. The past itself, coming to haunt him perhaps? The audience is kept guessing right until the end of the first act, which is full of brilliant jokes and nonsensical scenes. Freud’s desperate attempts to hide the suspicious young woman, who has decided to take off her clothes until she gains an audience with him, invite all forms of comic entertainment. By the time the eccentric Salvador Dali enters, the comedy is swiftly transforming into farce.
But playwright and director Terry Johnson, like many great writers, uses the power of laughter to explore tragedy. When Jessica finally explains the real reason she has forced her way into Freud’s study, the play dives into the dark and the audience is left blinking. Her knowledge of Freud’s work and her relentless questions turn the psycho analysis onto the great man himself, teasing the truth out of his mind, trying to uncover what he has repressed for years.
Without the Spanish painter, Salvador Dali, the second act would be difficult to watch. But like a bejewelled bullfighter without his bull, he prances and gesticulates about the room with little self-awareness. He falls in love with Jessica’s armpit, muddles English words and generally punctures the heavy atmosphere with light, bright moments of idiocy.
The Theatre Royal Bath company has produced a cast of rare talent. Antony Sher surrenders himself to Freud, wholly inhabiting the famous theoretic and breathing life into one of history’s most notorious characters. Indira Varma, as Jessica, is one of the few great actors who can stun an audience with their performance. Carefully balancing the nonsensical and the rational, Varma expertly plays a difficult character that repeatedly changes and evolves throughout the play.
David Horovitch, as Dr Yahuda, is magnificent, providing a typical Englishman’s perspective on the seemingly absurd activities of a Viennese, a Russian and a Spaniard: polite indifference. Will Keen, as the Spanish eccentric, is able to draw a laugh from the audience with a simple quirk of the eyebrow. His accent is occasionally difficult to follow, but his body language, which resembles something in between sign language and flamenco dancing, is a delight to translate.
Intelligently written, every line could be studied and pondered over. Terry Johnson has the remarkable ability to imagine scenes between historical characters that are both realistic and reminiscent of the past, but hold the benefits of hindsight. Punctured with comedy yet saturated with the truth of reality, the scenes Johnson writes are complex knots that the audience must try to unravel for themselves.
However, Hysteria has a disjointed ending that feels at odds with the rest of the production. When Freud descends into a form of madness, the overbearing set, when revealed, feels superficial. The challenges of staging the subconscious are infinite, but they might have overcome the difficulties by using the audience’s imagination and the actors’ talent to delineate worlds with words. The subconscious, as Freud would perhaps agree, is not to be artificially recreated.
Despite the bizarre ending, the play is a worthy introduction into the eccentricities of Freud’s life. With its flung-about philosophies and brilliant comic scenes, Hysteria is well worth a visit.