“This is a complete farce”
Terry Johnson’s 1993 play Hysteria garnered all sorts of awards for its original run at the Royal Court and this revival, from the Theatre Royal Bath, features Antony Sher in its leading role, so it is clearly a play that is held in some considerable regard. Set in the leafy Hampstead refuge where Sigmund Freud has sequestered himself as he battles cancer, his seclusion is interrupted by a series of visitors. Jessica, a mysterious young woman arrives, determined to have some of his time and seeking attention by stripping off her clothes, the subsequent arrivals of his elderly doctor Yahuda and then Salvador Dalí – Johnson was inspired by a real life meeting between the pair – leads to much slapstick comedy as Freud tries to hide the naked Jessica. But the real reasons for their visits are more serious and the play evolves into something much more complex.
Structurally though, it poses challenges as the mix of high-concept verbosity and low-rent humour is not always a comfortable one. Jessica’s presence, which sparks off the chain of farcical shenanigans – which, if you find the sight of a man in his underpants generally hilarious, you might like –subsequently becomes the vehicle for the playwright’s delving into the much more cerebral. The ethics of psychotherapy are interrogated as Freud’s own case histories come under the microscope, matters of Jewish identity explored as the Blitz rains down outside and the spectre of the Holocaust looms ever large, but the farce still remains, an uneasy bedfellow in the superstructure of the play. The comedy never advances the action, in fact the reverse is true: the play essentially stops to let these scenes play out, resulting in a first half which is close to 90 minutes. They never feel like a fully incorporated part of the writing.
Against this backdrop, the performances struggle to find an easy footing. Sher manages best, portraying Freud as a man with concentrated control at the very core of his being, fiercely intellectual and exasperated at the invasion of his reclusive slumber. Indira Varma’s initial frenzy feels over-pitched, resulting in a lack of credibility when the tone eventually darkens, but Will Keen’s over-emphatic Dalí comes across purely as caricature, manic to the extreme and surreal with it. And maybe this is the point: Johnson using surrealism – dizzyingly so in the second half – in part to tell his story whilst exploring it simultaneously and so perhaps this is the lens that Hysteria needs to be viewed through – “ceci n’est pas une pipe” after all. But that’s an ambitiously big leap, veering on the pretentious and it is hard to see that the writing backs up the concept or indeed the structure, this reviewer would be inclined to suggest “ceci n’est pas une bonne pièce de théâtre”.