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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HYSTERIA
at the Hampstead

INVOKING THE DEAD
By JOHN NATHAN

  Lydia Watson, Adrian Schiller and Antony Sher/ Ph: Alastair Muir

If you're a playwright looking to write a play, my advice is to populate it with famous people. It helps if they are dead because British libel laws protect only the living. It seems that this form of drama greatly increases the chances of a play finding a venue. For years, our stages have been stalked by the long-dead artists, politicians, dictators, murderers and musicians behind momentous historical events.

To be fair, this revival of Terry Johnson's uncategorisable play of 1993, which itself revives the fathers of psychiatry and surrealism, Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali, was a relatively early example of what might be called revivalist drama.

Whereas most plays populated by historical figures settle for the frisson that comes with imagining private conversations of public figures, Johnson's offering is altogether more ambitious. It takes as its starting point the moment when the ageing Freud (Antony Sher), wracked with pain from cancer of the mouth but still plying his trade, was visited in 1938 by the young Dali (Adrian Schiller), who had two years previously fled the Spanish Civil War. From this fact, Johnson not only imagines what passed between two of the last century’s greatest figures, but does so while vaulting across theatrical forms as diverse as farce and tragedy.

It's late at night when a mysterious girl knocks on the psychiatrist's French windows. Introducing herself as a student, her stated purpose is to persuade Freud to help her reenact one of his past case studies, a woman whose condition contributed to Freud's theory that hysteria is the result of paternal sexual abuse. It was a theory he later retracted. 

With Dali's introduction to the proceedings, the evening's themes inevitably turn to art, with Freud revealing that while the brilliant realism of Rembrandt or Vermeer are saturated with a subconscious language, with Dali's fantastical offerings he sees as a conscious effort to portray the subconscious. If a play with such insightful forays into art criticism and psycho-analytical theory sounds unrelentingly highbrow, bear in mind that by the end of the first act, the girl is hiding naked in Freud's bathroom, lest his conservative neighbour (David Horovitch) get the wrong impression, and Dali has lost his trousers.

But such broad comedy brushstrokes are never gratuitous here. Every element of this play is rooted in proper research. Even the farce. For it turns out that soon before Freud was visited by Dali, the psychiatrist attended a Ben Travers farce in the West End. To be harsh, the farce under Johnson's own direction could have been handled and written better by the writer/director. But few plays as funny as this, or as thought provoking.

As Freud, Sher somehow manages to maintain a convincing gravitas even when caught red-handed removing the trousers of an unconscious Dali. Schiller lisps his way through the role of the Spanish genius, informing everyone of Dali's pompous and self-aggrandising statements with a winning sincerity, while as Jessica, the girl, Lydia Watson is terrific plying a line between kooky and seriously disturbed.

 


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