Writer & Director: Terry Johnson
Reviewer: Shane Morgan
The Public Reviews Rating:
Terry Johnson’s Hysteria is not a play you can define in one clear sentence. Like a session with Freud, the play’s central character, the content is complex and likely to linger for some time to come.
We are greeted with silence. With Sir Anthony Sher’s Sigmund Freud staring out at us, we wait. We are challenged to speak. It’s just as well we don’t as the patient he was talking to has left. We are in his study that we later hear represents the ‘microcosm of the mind’. If this is the case, Freud’s mind must surely be orderly, full of knowledge and giant penises. After some gentle innuendo between Freud and his daughter Anna regarding a light cord, we meet Jessica, a mysterious intruder who sets her sights upon some time with Freud and Yahuda, Freud’s long suffering doctor. Add into the mix a fictional meeting between Freud and Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali and you have a cocktail for chaos and a play of extremes; beautifully pitched drama and the best of high farce.
Thematically, it would be easier to pinpoint what isn’t in Hysteria. In the hands of a playwright like Tom Stoppard, Freud’s complex theories on infantile sexuality, hysteria, penis envy et al would be almost impenetrable. Add into the mix religion, art and society and you have a formula for a nightmare dinner party. Johnson as writer, however, deals with the themes in such a digestible way that rather than being preached at or patronised, he opens a dialogue with his audience and allows us in. Johnson as director takes it one step further and places the audience side by side to the action on this Freudian rollercoaster.
The cast relish every last word of Johnson’s text and completely inhabit the world of the play. Indira Varma, as Jessica, has the most complex role as the intruder into Freud’s study who opens a can of worms and Freud’s case file simultaneously. Her ability to ease us into the story and hold us throughout the play’s most intense moments is integral to this production’s success and her performance is a wonderful achievement. Will Keen’s Salvador Dali is a triumph of physical comedy. Each line punctuated by a physical action which could, in lesser hands, grate but Keen’s sense of timing and poise drives the play. He has his audience in the palm of his hand and knows when to step back and allow the drama to unfold but by the same token enjoys every moment of comedy that Johnson has given him license to play.
At the centre of the play is Sher’s startlingly measured and powerful portrayal of Freud. With Sher, you have an actor so at ease with the art of storytelling it is like watching a skilled sleight of hand magician close up seamlessly going from one trick to the next. With Sher however, there are no tricks, no gimmicks, just a finely observed character who brings Freud to life for a 21st Century audience. Whilst Freud may not be Richard III or Tamburlaine or Primo Levi, his impact upon modern society and contemporary thought is so significant that you can’t imagine anyone else in the role. Freud explains that at a certain point of his career he chose, “to think and not to feel”. For a man who chose to remove himself from emotion and observe, the moments of farce (Dali’s first entrance amongst many others) and the moments of extreme physical and emotional pain are handled skilfully by Sher and deserve to be ranked amongst his greatest achievements. It’s not every actor who can get away with the line, “I have the advantage of being me”.
Designed by Lez Brotherston, nothing in Hysteria is what it seems. With its multiple entrances and exits, the demands of the production are met with ingenuity and panache that, matched with the performances, sets Hysteria aside as a highlight of the current theatrical landscape.
If ever there was a production that defined the magic of theatre, this is it.
Runs until 18th August 2012.Hysteria - Theatre Royal, Bath ,
Tags: Bath, David Horovitch, Hysteria, Indira Varma, Lez Brotherston, Psychoanalysis, Revival, Royal Court theatre, Salvador Dali, Sigmund Freud, Sir Anthony Sher, Surrealism, Terry Johnson, Theatre, Theatre Royal Bath, Will Keen