Reviewed by Ellen Becker
“You murder dreams,” Freud tells Dalí in Terry Johnson’s imagined tale of their real meeting in London in 1938. Perhaps Johnson’s Freud is levelling this criticism at his own work, picking apart dreams to filter the unconscious; interpreting the supposedly repressed traumas and desires that seep through when our minds are at their most elastic.
This latent self-analysis may explain why Freud is so affronted when the precocious Jessica turns up on his doorstep in the middle of the night, begging to discuss one of Freud’s old case studies. Jessica pulls Freud down the rabbit hole of the past, circuitously dredging through his corpus to find the ‘truth.’ But can Freud’s interpretation of dreams be stable when it was never fixed in his own mind?
Coupled with Jessica’s stubborn refusal to leave, Freud must simultaneously entertain his unwanted disciple, Salvador Dalí. Johnson seems to be channeling his own suspicions of surrealism through Freud, though this may be a little misleading given Dalí’s sketch of Freud’s cranium as a snail takes pride of place in the Freud Museum in Hampstead. Dalí’s flamboyance leads to many a slapstick set piece through the play, counterbalancing Jessica’s profound seriousness.
As Freud, Jo Turner gives a convincing performance of an old man at his wit’s end, delivering Freud’s humourlessness to great comic effect. Michael McStay’s performance of Dalí is engaging, though in line with Johnson’s characterisation, does err on the side of caricature, seemingly acting as the reverse comic foil for Miranda Daughtry’s intense Jessica.
Director Susanna Dowling manages to balance the more sombre moments in Johnson’s play with well-executed physical comedy. Johnson’s play however draws a rather precarious line between trauma and comedy, that doesn’t quite come off seamlessly. The trauma is two-fold, the cataclysm that would become the Second World War and the Holocaust, and the fictional family tragedy that Jessica slowly reveals. Freud may have escaped Austria under the Anschluss, but he’s ravaged by terminal cancer of the mouth, as well as profound guilt for leaving behind his four sisters in Austria. His death in exile shielded him from their tragic fate. Hysteria is certainly a provocative piece, but raises a challenging question - can there be comedy after Auschwitz?
Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Hysteria: Or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis is showing at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst until the 30th April. For times and tickets, head to www.darlinghursttheatre.com