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Photo by Robert Catto

Darlinghurst Theatre Company, present HYSTERIA, by Terry Johnson, in the Eternity Playhouse, Burton St, Darlinghurst. 31 March – 30 April.

The official title of this play, written in 1993, by Terry Johnson is: “HYSTERIA, or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis”. The play treats the last days of Sigmund Freud, in his London refuge from Nazi Germany, dying of cancer of the jaw, hallucinating on morphine injections, given by his friend Abraham Yahuda, dealing with a visit of Jessica, his anima, (i.e. the psychological equivalent of his denied female self), who reveals herself as the daughter of Rebecca S – one of the famous foundation cases of some of the theories of Freud – is she illusory or not? – and a visit, for tea, from the famous Surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Psychology Theory, (Jewish histroical/biblical identity), and the Theory of Surrealist Art are intertwined in the hysterical conversational narrative of the play.

The intermingling of the intellectual density and ‘fun’ of these three worlds have given this play a linking in appreciation to some of the great works of that other British playwright, Tom Stoppard e.g. ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD or, better still, TRAVESTIES. For, in addition to the complication of the text material, Mr Johnson has embarked on an experiment/explication of form, by introducing the mayhem of farce – which is referenced in the play with a set of running gags concerning Freud’s recent attendance at Ben Travers’ ROOKERY NOOK, in the West End of London, in 1938.

The task the Director, Designers and Actors in attempting this play is one of facing up to great ambition. The double difficulties of this play has not daunted the international theatre scene, the play having been regularly revived, ventilated, over there – even declared a ‘masterpiece’ of this genre. Last time, shown in London, as recently as 2013, with Antony Sher, as Freud – Directed by Mr Johnson, himself. I don’t remember that the play has been seen here, in Sydney, before.

At the end of this performance in the Eternity Playhouse I came away with a great admiration of the playwrighting – the ideas are, indeed, thrilling to have to reckon with – challenging, stimulating, heady. The ‘drama’ of the ideas, in this production, are clearly purveyed to us. What is missing from this production is the comedy of the wit and more especially of the farce in the form of the structure. There is much to be dealt with in the analysis of the obsessional neurosis of Freud and Dali, but, one truly wished that it had been leavened with the farcical elements planned by Mr Johnson. There is only half of the writer’s intention, artistry, on this stage.

Ms Dowling and her Designer, Anna Gardiner, get off to a fatal start when they ignore the Design Settings indicated by the writer. The first decision was to re-configure the architectural plans of doors and windows, a catastrophic choice when working with the mechanisms of farce which the writer has meticulously worked out (mentally, choreographed) to provide the visual comedy of the farce to balance the dense verbal wit of the text. Importantly, they have, as well, ignored that the setting be ‘naturalistically rendered to contrast with the design challenge towards the end of Act Two.’  Ms Dowling and Gardiner present the audience not with the naturalistic setting of Freud’s consulting study at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, London (preserved as a museum today) but a surrealistic set of grey walls, one of them dramatically tilted outwardly with, necessarily, working doors, and, similarly, painted properties of books and statuettes (that provide ‘screens’ for projection), leaving no journey for, to the drug induced visual climax required by the writer toward the end of the play. Indeed, this production introduces the kind of imagery at the start of the play that Mr Johnson indicated is part of the climax of his play’s surrealist structure – the incarnation of both the ‘dream’ worlds of Freud and Dali’s theories. The beginning of this production of the play has a huge projected image of an injecting needle vacating, presumably, a drug (morphine) into the neck of a resting Freud. The illusory coup de theatre climax of Act Two, planned by Mr Johnson, has been, sadly, dramatically, pre-empted.

The actors in this company: Jo Turner (Sigmund Freud), Wendy Strehlow (Abraham Yahuda), Miranda Daughtry (Jessica) and Michael McStay (Salvador Dali) all have a marvellous grip on the fascinating verbal densities of Mr Johnson’s text – the ‘drama’ of the debates are clear. But they play the farcical actions of the play and deliver the verbal wit (sometimes deliberate banalities) of the script with an earnestness that defeats any possibility of a gathering of laughter, that accumulatively, ought to be hysterical – ‘an emotional frenzy’, ’emotionally disordered’, says my dictionary. Part of this has to do with the re-arranged architectural features of the original Design Settings – the actors are not where they should be, technically, for the playwright’s planned visual gags to work – but, also, with the casting.

It seemed to me that Ms Strehlow is the only actor who has an instinctive flair for the kind of comedy she is in – her energy, and physical and verbal timing and intonation is spot-on. (One should note, that Ms Strehlow is cast against gender as the historical figure, Abraham Yahuda. “For, why?’, some of us may ask – it does not seem to have a rhyme or reason to be so, and, maybe, I extrapolate, it is just a contemporary ‘political’ gesture by this company to achieve gender parity on stage – but, I should remark, by the way, it is extremely well done by Ms Strehlow, it is a wonderful and convincing bit of characterisation [despite the fact she never ever wears a suit jacket – oddly unconventional for the period!] Ms Strehlow is, indeed, a terrific actor). Michael McStay seems to have the intellectual acumen to deliver the intellectualisations of the Dali of the play, but seems woefully, inexperienced or unaware of comic playing – his vocal work is just under par – diction and musicality – and, as a great deal of the Dali comedy is in the idiosyncratic use of English by this Spaniard, it disarms/hides much of the witty, bubbling hysteria of the scenes. While Ms Daughty has, too, intellectual agility, she appears to be capable of being only ‘deadly’ serious with next to no instincts or abilities for the comic possibility of her role. Mr Turner, in the central role of Freud, is caught with no real actor to play his comedy opportunities off, except Ms Strehlow, but that is not often enough, to create much of the comic havoc that the role has the potential to deliver – Mr McStay and Ms Daughty, being ‘dead comic weights’ – there is nothing for Mr Turner to build his comedy with or from.

The opening black and white videography, assumedly the decision of Director and Designer, reminded me almost instantly of the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock film, SPELLBOUND. SPELLBOUND is about a Freudian psychologist played by Ingrid Bergman helping a man (Gregory Peck) unscramble a guilt complex. (P.S. for you acting buffs the famous Russian actor/teacher, Michael Chekhov, is also in the film in a supporting role). Part of the film includes a dream sequence that was conceived and designed by Salvador Dali (although, only 2 minutes survived from, a now lost 22 minute sequence). The camera work and angles of the HYSTERIA videography had the hall marks of Hitchcock style – I, also recalled a similar conceit used by the visiting Kneehigh production of a staged version of BRIEF ENCOUNTER, with steam train images, noise etc., etc. – so that the coincidence of Freud and Dali and this video imagery threw me into seeing the earnestness of the acting in that film and felt that that is what this company of actors were, possibly, unconsciously, replicating. It certainly explains in my consciousness the dullness of the comedy affects in this production.

Whatever, this production of Terry Johnson’s play has only half of its intention on stage. The half that is on stage is fascinating – it is why I then re-read the play, but there is no substitute of reward by not seeing the intended farce as well, and reading the play can’t do that – those words and scripted intentions need the ‘right’ flesh to bring them to life. It is this bravura commitment of the writer that has made this play A. Formidbale, but, also B. a Masterpiece. The play remans Formidable for Darlinghurst Theatre Company and is no Masterpiece in this production. Unfortunate.