Written and Directed by Terry Johnson
Bath Theatre Royal
1st August 2012, matinee
Anthony Sher as Freud
Will Keen as Salvadore Dali
Indira Varma as Miriam
David Horovitch as Yahuda, Freud’s doctor
Six uncredited extras (though four had to strip off)
You have to make choices in life and take sides. John or Paul? Mick or Keef? Superman or Batman? Dandy or Beano? Freud or Jung? You’re not expected to have actually read the stuff, but you can still have an opinion, and I’m 100% in the Jung camp.
Terry Johnson’s play about the last days of Freud opened in 1993 and garnered awards on all sides. It’s been produced several times since. This 2012 revival takes it to Bath with an outstanding cast, and Johnson directs himself.
The historical facts are that Freud located himself to Hampstead in 1938, and that Salvadore Dali was among his visitors. How much of the play is based on case histories, I don’t know. A woman turns up, strips off (out of sight) and brings the ageing and dying Freud back to an 1897 case which was critical in Freud’s work. We explore whether the psycho-analytical insights he found then were true (There was an epidemic of paternal incest in fin de siecle Vienna) or hysterical false memory based on fantasy. Miriam confronts him with her mother’s case, which he wrote up extensively. There’s also the issue of integrity: whether he revised his thesis (paternal incest was rife) to childhood sexual fantasies (the women were making it up) because the accused Viennese father in the case was well-connected in publishing.
Salvadore Dali turns up, which brings surrealism into the area of fantasy and memory. The play was written in 1993, long before the media alerted us to the dangers of fathers inviting their daughters (or passing female children) to inspect the cellars in Austria. Prediction? Or reinforcing that Freud was not writing about “the human condition” but the peculiarities of wealthy Viennese society prior to World War One, an era in Austria which produced Egon Schiele on the artistic side, or Adolf Hitler attending the cathedral in Salzburg. In the play, Freud has to confront his own sub-conscious guilt: incestuous fantasies, or are they hallucinations?
Anthony Scher as Freud, Indira Varma as Miriam
OK, bits are very funny indeed. There is a twenty minute spell of pure farce in Act One which is superb. The play mentions Freud going to see the popular Ben Travers farce Rookery Nook, (which indeed he did) and brings it up a couple of times. Johnson employs all the classic bits of theatrical comedy: misunderstood lines, naked women who must be concealed in closets, flimsy underwear strewn around which has to be explained, men losing their trousers, a character having to read a script and mistakenly reading the stage directions. He even sets the play in the stereotypical set of a room with french windows, back centre. So it’s consciously ‘about theatre’ as well as about Freud, even if the average modern audience won’t bring Rookery Nook immediately to mind. Terry Johnson would … he directed it in a 2009 production. Rookery Nook is about a girl fleeing her strict father, and turning up in a house in pyjamas. The parallels are clear, as Freud’s retirement and contemplation of the imminent end of his life is interrupted by the arrival of a girl who very soon strips off.
Freud and Dali
The tableau when Dali arrives is as surreal as anything he painted. The pure French farce business with bathrooms and clothes is brilliant. There’s a second peak when Freud for quite innocent reasons is trying to remove Dali’s trousers and the doctor walks in.
What Dali was confronted with on arrival …
The comedy section leads into a major change of style: Miriam’s recreation and role-playing of her mother’s deeply disturbing case history which is a tour de force by Indira Varma, quivering, gagging … well, hysterical. It’s punctuated with funny stuff from Dali (who is made to role-play Freud) but that highlights rather than detracts from the impact.
Anthony Scher gives a rich interpretation of Freud at eighty-two with cancer of the jaw. You can feel his pain, empathize with the irritation. Will Keen is a hilarious Dali, but I admit I would have felt uncomfortable watching it with Spanish friends. In some ways, Dali, the Doctor and Freud all become pantomime characters in the farcical sections, leaving Miriam as the real person in contrast. I assume this is intended. The end turns the truth onto Freud. Miriam proves her thesis. It did happen.
Will Keen as Salvadore Dali
Freud and Dali really did meet in 1938 (moved in the play to 1939 so we can have the war already started), and Dali saw and commented on a snail on a bicycle at Freud’s house, which is recreated in the play. Freud really did die a few days into World War II, assisted by his doctor. Dali read Freud in detail and was influenced. The painting described in detail in the play is real but painted in 1944):
I have reservations. The play itself reminds me strongly of 1968 / 1969 even if it dates from 1993. Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class comes to mind. Hilarious comedy, serious and incisive speeches on disturbing subjects, side themes on religion, punctuated with surreal events. It was my favourite play until the late 70s when I began to think, no, this really doesn’t work. I’m uncomfortable with high farce mixed with incest and the holocaust. To carry off that sort of transition and contrast, it needs a totally brilliant play, and this isn’t quite it, though it thinks it is, as did all the judges and reviewers in 1994.
As in 1969 “contains nudity” on the posters is advertising, not a warning. I felt bad about the three nude actors playing the elderly sisters in a concentration camp in the fantasy sequence. I thought it demeaning, and though the shock worked, it was probably gratuitous. I thought that whole surreal section in Act Two veered on pretentious, and was over expensive, requiring the base set to fly apart, doors to expand, clocks to melt, and six extra actors who were on stage for no more than two minutes. But I’m not moaning too much, the effect was spectacular … especially Miriam’s grandfather, dressed as the cartoon Nazi propaganda Jew.
You can’t fault a single performance, but something jars in the plot as a whole. Brilliant lines, even if the play severely truncated the genuine Dali quote: “Picasso is Spanish. Me Too. Picasso is an artist. Me too. Picasso is a communist. Me neither.” That quote inspired Serge Gainsbourg to compose “Je t’aime … mois non plus.”
The play is very neatly bookended. No plot spoilers but it reflects on the theme.
Anthony Scher as Freud, David Horovitch as the doctor
Freud and the Doctor went off stage to theoretically light cigars. Good.
The season programme at £4 for three plays. This was the second. Not worth if it you missed the first play. How will they sell it for the third? ‘Buy this. It’s got two you’ve already missed in it.”?
THE BATH MATINEE CROWD
Not a single funny interjection this time. But the roar of the greasepaint was powerfully mixed with the menthol reek of Vick’s Vapour Rub where we were sitting. On my Bath applause meter, the reception was better than average … whoops are rare at matinees, and Sher deservedly got them.