There are many punchy and hilariously funny lines in Terry Johnson’s Hysteria. You can read the play to yourself and laugh out loud. Watching it staged, one realises there is a great deal more humour, which carries the unfolding dramatic events from an earnest confrontation to delirious farcical mayhem.
Twenty years after Hysteria received its premiere at the Royal Court, the play is still remarkably fresh, thought-provoking and affecting in parts.
The year is 1938 and in his study in Hampstead, at 4:50 am, Sigmund Freud, suffering from cancer in his jaw, is momentarily confused. The opening and final scenes are one and the same. The events that unfold in-between are taken from factual material but blended with possible hallucination, subliminal and conscious themes from Freud’s published work and life, embedded in a colourful farce.
Standing in the rain, tapping on his study’s patio door, is a young woman, threatening to kill herself with a razor if not let in. When urged to go away, she takes off her clothes and raises her voice, leaving the old man no option but to let her in. This unwelcome nocturnal guest seems well versed in the old man’s writings and theories. She is focused on one case and on one question – the case is Freud’s published story of Rebecca S, one of his successful cases, and the question she poses is why did he change his view on hysteria? Why did he negate his initial, well published assertion that the cause in hysteria is a passive sexual experience before puberty, ie a traumatic seduction and replace it with publications declaring that the cause is the patient’s imagined stories of seduction.
The young lady, superbly performed by Lydia Wilson, introduces herself as Jessica. Eventually, Freud learns not only that she is the daughter of his ex- patient, Rebecca S., but he faces her accusations and assertions as to the real reasons for refuting his original theory on hysteria. Her account of the devastating effect that it had on her mother is harrowing. The father of psychoanalysis is moved into reflecting images from his own past, wonderfully realised by Lez Brotherston, who also beautifully replicates Freud’s study. The confrontation between Freud and Jessica is deliciously seasoned with a visit from Salvador Dali, (who is recoded to have visited Freud for tea on 19 July 1938), and Freud’s physician, Yehuda. The performance of all four is impressive.
Antony Sher’s Freud is dignified and funny although the German accent eluded him every now and then. The coach encounter with Jessica is brilliantly performed as are the rest of his farcical encounters with Dali. Adrian Schiller’s Dali veers from a delightful buffoon to an exquisite megalomaniac, maintaining throughout a hilarious Spanish accent. Last but not least is David Horovitch’s Yehuda, the Jewish doctor who challenges Freud’s writing on Moses and updates his patient on events in Germany and Austria. He reads, to his famous patient, a newspaper report about Kristallnacht.
The play and the setting are meticulously researched, although I reckon that Jessica in 1938 would have been a 40 year-old or more woman, as she reports that her mother was pregnant with her in 1897. The air raids in the play were surprising as these only began after Freud’s death.
This production is highly recommended.