Freudian Blip: Hysteria at the Hampstead Theatre

Saturday 5th October 2013, matinée

Sometimes we think we should be a bit more circumspect when we book to see a show.  In the case of ‘Hysteria’ at the Hampstead Theatre there are three things we wish we’d found out first: a) that it is a revival by Terry Johnson of his own play from twenty years ago; b) that it won an Olivier for ‘best comedy’, yet does not have any notably comedic actors in the cast and c) it is in part a fictional account of a real-life meeting between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali.  And the catch here is that this set-up sounds very much more interesting than it is.  If only we’d given it a bit more analysis.  But you can hardly blame us for being unable to repress our desire to see Anthony Sher as the eponymous head-shrinker, along with a top-notch cast and direction by Terry Johnson, to whom we are eternally grateful for ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ at the Menier.

This play reminded us a little of Peter and Alice, and not in a good way.  Just as that play was based on a real life meeting between two intriguing characters which failed to deliver on its dramatic promise, this play, whose main protagonists sound as though they were made for an interesting drama, seems to fulfill Freud’s diagnosis of Dali’s work ‘It does not contain anything of the unconscious’.  The synopsis, such as it is, centres on Freud’s last days, a refugee in London waiting for his imminent death from cancer.  He is visited by a mysterious young woman who wants to re-enact a particular case study with him before revealing that she is the daughter of his former patient, and is distinctly unimpressed with his therapeutic skills, for reasons which soon become clear.  At the same time, Salvador Dali pays a visit and ‘hilarity’ ensues.  Never have we had such a curious feeling of watching two plays cut and pasted together – one a classic farce, the other a serious psychological drama.  This is more referential than reverential, with some clever Dali-esque visuals, and a plot clearly borrowed from ‘Rookery Nook’, which Freud has been to see a few nights before.

Professional reviewers do tend to relish a clever play, but as audience members, we felt that we were denied the well-crafted complexity of true farce, whilst being unable to engage with the drama either emotionally or intellectually.  Every time things became amusing, the action seemed to slow down, and the drama was constantly undercut by cheap humour.  It’s doubly frustrating as there did seem to be a genuinely interesting story trying to break, centred around the question of Freud’s motives for abandoning his own seduction theory.  And whilst we are on the subject of sexuality and infantile behaviour, at the risk of sounding prudish, we couldn’t help but wonder at the levity with which sexual abuse was treated, and the rather gratuitous use of naked women invading the stage, albeit in a dream sequence.  And there was something rather distasteful about the fact that the four actresses involved had virtually nothing else to do in the play but take their clothes off.  How did the conversation with their agents go, we wonder? “Good news, I’ve got you a gig at the Hampstead….”

Adding to the frustration is that the acting was excellent all round, with Anthony Sher and David Horovitch creating an engaging double act as Freud and his Doctor.  Adrian Schiller’s outrageously over-the-top performance as Dali, a man who never seems to stop performing, made us wish that there was a play all about Dali that he could star in. Lydia Wilson impressed us in Cheek by Jowl’s production of Tis Pity She’s a Whore, rising above a production and play we really didn’t like, and here again she somehow manages to exude a strength and dignity amongst the chaos.  The sense of a lone female voice being ignored by the men all around her is genuinely touching in her performance – we look forward to seeing her again in a piece which gives her a bit more to work with.

Which brings us to a topic which we had almost forgotten about, having enjoyed pretty good seats on our recent visits to the Hampstead.  Due to the popularity of the play, we found ourselves short of choice, and plumped for an area in the stalls known as the ‘stalls arcade’ (rows L and M for future reference).  Don’t be fooled – these seats are not amusing. Judging from our vain attempts to find reference to it on google, this seems to be theatre’s best kept secret, but if you look at a picture of the auditorium your eyes do not deceive you – the seats in these rows really do slope downwards as they get further from the centre. Yes, you sit at an angle – sideways.  Subtle the effect might be, but over two hours, the discomfort is tangible.  And so we must give an award of our own to the Hampstead – most perverse and unnecessary infliction of discomfort on audience members in a purpose-built building a mere ten years old.

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