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Review: Hysteria

Posted on 14 September 2013 by Daniel Harrison

Hysteria

I have a terrible confession to make. I arrived late to the Press Night for Hysteria at the Hampstead Theatre. And more fool me, because Terry Johnson’s production zips along merrily, providing a frantic and boisterous wit, as well as an intelligent and thought-provoking insight into Freud the man and his patients, and the whole complicated world of psychoanalysis.

We the audience are greeted to a farce of delirious proportions, akin to A Flea in Her Ear or Noises Off, as doors slam shut and reopen, as scantily clad individuals parade about and hide, and as characters try desperately to keep on top of absurd situations, much to the delight of the audience. Yet Hysteria’s power lies in the fact that it is much more than this; hidden beneath the double-entendres and the mistaken identities is a sharp and poignant examination of the human condition. Indeed, the fact that it is wrapped around such a faultless comedy makes it all the more powerful when re-examined on the tube home.

Stage royalty Anthony Sher plays Sigmund Freud, who, as well as entertaining his doctor Yahuda (who is quick to dismiss “the godless avant-garde with their continental gestures”),  is unintentionally hosting Jessica, keen to learn more about Freud’s dealings with her mother Miriam, and the visiting Salvador Dali, played to gloriously hammed-up proportions by Adrian Schiller, an actor whose talents I’ve always rated. Jessica’s dogmatic interrogation of Freud is fascinating to watch, draining the comic atmosphere so carefully sustained, and translating it instead into a brutal and naked deconstruction of Freudian theories. Quite simply, what this boils down to is a nuanced piece of theatre, whose frequent laughs all but mask the shocking and sobering socio-historical context.

The crisp incision and sustained structure of Johnson’s text allows me to forgive its occasional failings. Sometimes Schiller as Dali verges dangerously onto the wrong side of Manuel from Fawlty Towers (“apologies” is pronounced “apollo-geese” for instance), and the plot does lose its way slightly during an over-elaborate and self-indulgent dream sequence (with kudos however to Lez Brotherston’s flexible set design for catering for this). Elsewhere, the writing leave audiences spellbound; Freud, whilst deified by those around him, “chooses to think, not to feel”, displaying the clinical nature of his profession, and Jessica is heartfelt when she declares that “just because [she] is not able to articulate these things doesn’t mean that [she] is not able to bear them” (a statement as true today in the light of historical cases of sexual abuse as it was in the 1930s). As well as this, and whilst not dwelling on it directly, Johnson’s words examine the discourse of the term “hysteria”, and what this may mean to audiences today. This is a play as relevant to the time it is set as it is to the audience absorbing it in 2013.

What is strikingly obvious is that the cast are having a great time, and this feeling is thoroughly infectious, which makes Hysteria’s dark turns, when only the rain permeates the awkward pauses, all the more harrowing. Make no mistake, Hysteria is the show to top this autumn.

Hysteria is at Hampstead Theatre until 12 October. For more information and tickets visit the Hampstead Theatre’s website.

Daniel Harrison

Daniel Harrison

A graduate of Theatre Studies, Daniel has worked in a number of different areas within theatre, most recently cutting his teeth with the Communications team at BAC. He is currently Project Assistant for the Young Vic's upcoming Schools Theatre Festival, and is a champion of the power of theatre as a force for good within society.

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Review: Hysteria

Posted on 23 August 2012 by Amelia Forsbrook

“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.

Amelia Forsbrook

Formerly one of the Wales Arts International critics, Amelia moved to London in early 2012 with two big aims: to continue working as an arts writer, and to discover whether it's ever possible to pull off both telephones and flying in theatre. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance and twentieth century European theatre, Amelia writes for a number of other publications, as well as being an Off West End Assessor.

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Review: Hysteria

Posted on 08 August 2012 by Edward Franklin

At the clowning climax of The School for Scandal, the first production of Bath Theatre Royal’s summer season, a devious aristocrat feverishly skits around the stage in an attempt to keep the woman he has been impertinently flirting with hidden behind a screen from her husband and his brother. In Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, the second play of the season, a very similar scene occurs – this time it’s an aged Sigmund Freud concealing a nude and unstable critic of his work from his doctor, Yahuda, and Salvador Dali. Naturally.

The difference is that the high farce of Scandal’s screen scene is the explicable crest of Sheridan’s comedic wave; in Johnson’s play the comedy is just one element of a curious dramatic synthesis that takes in mystery, madness and melodrama in equal measures. There’s no doubt this makes for an intriguing evening – starting with the arrival of perturbed student Jessica, the addition of each new character to the dialectical melting pot of Freud’s Hampstead study (beautifully designed by Lez Brotherston) allows for greater complexity in the play’s discussion of questions concerning psychological ethics and Jewish identity, as well as greater mayhem in the many moments of levity. But though there is skill to the deftness of touch with which Johnson – as both writer and director – moves between such scenes, he struggles to achieve overall cohesion; the complete impression is rather hodgepodge, or, if you will, surreal.

Considering the centrality of Dali to the play – the second act climaxes with a glittering visual coup de théâtre ripped straight from one of the Spaniard’s canvases – this frenetic clash of the realist and the ridiculous may well be the point. Even so, it leads to moments where the characterisations of these real-life personas are questionable, and where the momentum of the broader narrative is arbitrarily halted, for a lewd sight gag or cheap sex joke. In Orton’s What the Butler Saw, farce is used as a vehicle to explore the insanity of insanity; here, by the time we come to the crux of the piece – an interrogation of whether Freud’s 1897 theory of infantile sexuality came about through opportunism and self-deception – the connection between form and content has come under strain.

For the most part, this is a strain which does not inhibit the performances of the cast, led by a sensitively restrained Antony Sher, who, in the measured conviction of his voice and the weary slump of his head, captures Freud as a man whose intellect continues to burn bright even as his body succumbs to an aggressively cancerous jaw. His is also perhaps the most admirable technique for getting laughs from the audience – unlike the outrageously mannered Will Keen as a caricaturish Dali, he never plays for them. Indira Varma may have taken a little too much inspiration from the title of the play in shaping her performance as Jessica, but becomes more genuinely affecting as the evening progresses and her real motivations for visiting Freud and questioning the basis of his theories becomes clear.

Structurally flawed as it is, Hysteria remains remarkable among the glut of farces which have emerged onto the theatrical scene in the last year, for deriving its power not from the crotch and the stumble, but from the head and from history. Rarely riotously funny, Johsnon has nevertheless put something on the Bath stage which strikes a balance between entertainment and incisiveness that many a more conventional playwright would do well to aspire to.

Hysteria plays at the Theatre Royal Bath from 26 July-18 August 2012. For more information, visit their website.

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Review: The School for Scandal

Posted on 12 July 2012 by Edward Franklin

The contemporary theatrical climate poses a threat to playwrights such as Richard Brinsley Sheridan. His works concern themselves with artifice, gossip and profligacy; The School for Scandal specifically details the problematic marriage of the elderly Sir Peter Teazle and a young gold-digger, as well as a contest for love and legacy fought between the slickly hypocritical Joseph Surface and his roguish spendthrift of a brother, Charles. Synopsised in a certain way and you’d never guess the play was written 235 years ago, but it was, and the danger in a time when interpretation and update are seen as vital to box office success is that the eighteenth-century origins of the piece may be disregarded, and the opportunity for audiences to subtly draw out parallels rather than being brazenly confronted with them, destroyed.

Luckily, then, young and innovative a director though Jamie Lloyd is, his Scandal – the opening production of Theatre Royal Bath’s first summer season since 2002 without the legendary Peter Hall at the helm – is an exemplar of well-researched period gaiety. He and his production team have clearly recognised that the brilliance of the play lies in Sheridan’s linguistic dexterity, and work to give it all the space it needs to breathe. Central to this approach is Soutra Gilmour’s white-washed set: simple and stylish, but flexible enough to capture the distinct atmosphere of multiple homes. With wall panels that rotate from portraits into bookcases, and a panelled room divider which shutters open to reveal a balcony, a back room or an upstairs landing, the design also gives Lloyd full reign to demonstrate his choreographic knack for managing stage business, with a bustling ensemble facilitating scene changes with the same effortless elegance as they did in his She Stoops to Conquer earlier this year.

As with that production, the cast is not-quite-universally stellar. It is James Laurenson who lets the side down here, robbing Sir Peter of his near-unassailable sardonicism, with a strangely stolid, low-key performance. Other performers have yet to fully settle into the rhythm of the play, with its frequent ‘raised-eyebrow’ asides, but are nevertheless adept at providing the laughs by way of relishing each line of tongue-waggingly salacious dialogue they are tasked with delivering – none more so than Edward Bennett, whose unravelling in the famous concealment scene is a study in comic mania. There’s a scene-stealing turn, too, from Maggie Steed, whose Mrs Candour – the most consummately indiscreet of the play’s gossips – spreads her malicious tittle-tattle in a breathless simper as false as her wig.

In the end, as it should be, the play is the star, and Sheridan’s epigrammatic wit and tongue-in-cheek moralism prove more than robust enough to translate through time without any gaudy directorial conceits imposed upon them. It would be perfectly fair to note that this is far from a brave choice for Bath, and given that its season continues with Terry Johnson’s Hysteria starring Anthony Sher, and The Tempest directed by former RSC head Adrian Noble, that doesn’t look set to change. But with the risk-taking Ustinov Studio just next door, it’s a comment which seems more-or-less irrelevant; classics such as these still deserve to be seen – and if the productions they receive are as elegant as Lloyd’s, and as the Theatre Royal where they are to be staged, there’ll be no complaints from me.

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