Review: Hysteria

“Get out of my head”, cries an elderly Austrian therapist to the handful of guests that plague his study. He quickly exchanges the word “head” for “house”, but in an imaginative production centred around Sigmund Freud, this little ‘slip’ is not accidental; rather, spoken in a piece designed to turn the great thinker’s analysis right round onto his own mind, this line has an air of finality that confirms Hysteria is more than a realist interpretation of the original psychoanalyst’s dying days.

Written and directed by Terry Johnson, the man who brought Peter Quilter’s “laugh-a-minute” tale of Judy Garland’s tragic drug dependence to the West End stage, Hysteria fictionalises a series of interactions conducted near the end of Freud’s life in 1938. Like Quilter’s End of the Rainbow, this production attempts to make humour out of harrowing quasi-biographical factors as it brings together throwaway puns and allusions to oral rape in ways that are as offensive as they are unfunny.

When you combine Freud’s controversial theories on sexuality with the fact that the man penned an entire guide to humour, we could assume that writing a farce with him as the subject shouldn’t be too hard. Unfortunately, Johnson isn’t as successful as his subject when it comes to blending wit and academic thought, and so this farce swings tediously between the two.

The principle is clever; urging us to view Freud’s study as a microcosm of the lead character’s mind, the production demands that every audience member has a go at being a psychoanalyst. Indeed, it’s clear that Hysteria is built on a foundation of psychoanalytical research, which can only be admired. However, the dropped trousers, giant ceramic phalluses and other farcical staples sit uncomfortably with the analytical thought, ultimately acting as obstacles to any satisfying interpretation that can be made. Ultimately, like every patient in Freud’s published case studies, the character’s actions were motivated by a well-considered greater rationality, yet their specific actions were very difficult to comprehend.

Subtler Freudian illusions are knotted into this nocturnal narrative, giving this production a certain scholarly tone. As Freud’s moralising physician enters, intent on blackmailing his patient with guilt, the tensions between the superego and the ego are vividly represented. In this scene, the only factor necessary to complete Freud’s tripartite structural model of the psyche is the impulsive force of the id – and who better to bring this unconscious quality into focus than the seemingly unregulated Salvador Dali, who appears into the room uninvited, spouting surreal and childish nonsense.

While Hysteria is far from satisfying live entertainment, there is pleasure to be had in turning the auditorium seat into a therapist’s chair and cracking the psychoanalytical code behind Johnson’s work. Starting and finishing with the same passage, the piece evokes a neurotic repetition that is ideal for its subject matter. As his days come to an end and his doctor prescribes medication, Freud poetically declares, “I’d rather think in pain than dream in oblivion”. Functioning as some unsettling compromise, this nightmarish vision pivots between the real and the surreal.

Hysteria is playing at Richmond Theatre until 25 August. For more information and tickets, see the Richmond Theatre website.

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