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.