When a motley crew of young, angry playwrights kicked off the In-Yer-Face movement at London’s Royal Court in the ’90s, they dramatically changed the face of theatre both in their own country and abroad. Some of those writers spoke beyond time and place; others, like Terry Johnson, used old forms to varying degrees of success; Hysteria, in the mould of farce, saw huge success in 1993, but on today’s stage functions mostly as a museum piece.
Renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (Jo Turner) is about to retire for the night when his practice is invaded by three figures: Jessica (Miranda Daughtry), a manic young woman demanding immediate treatment; Freud’s surly companion Yehuda (Wendy Strehlow); and the eccentric surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (Michael McStay), wishing to be analysed by a man he sees as a hero.
It seems fitting that this production should share a timeslot with Griffin Theatre Company’s The Homosexuals, Or ‘Faggots’ – Declan Greene’s modern farce maintains the madcap buffoonery of the form and uses it to powerful effect, shocking the audience with a hard line of questioning that speaks to its lives outside the theatre. Susanna Dowling’s production of Hysteria, on the contrary, parades its dated style and themes as if attempting to woo STC’s subscriber base. It plays like a neurologist’s take on Fawlty Towers, blending goofy slapstick and complex psychoanalysis to create something not quite as compelling as either.
The decision to stage the show is questionable; failing to excise the text’s most outmoded moments is indefensible. Dalí, little better than a caricature, is lambasted for being a “Spaniard”, and constantly refers to himself in third person like a verbose Pokémon. Arguments for the dramaturgic justification of this do little to make his presence any more enjoyable, nor qualify his bizarrely shifting attitudes towards Jessica.
Turner’s Freud is more complex, naturally, but one can’t help but feel the playwright’s snide sense of superiority to one of the more important psychoanalytical figures of the 20th century seeping through the pages of the text. Nor does Freud’s intelligence render him immune to bogglingly inept decisions across the course of the play, or a preposterous eye-roll-inducing buggery gag.
Had the text been savaged as comprehensively as its figures, it may have proven potent – Jessica, as the play’s true moral compass, speaks to the diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ that still plagues outspoken women to this day. (Ask Van Badham, or any other female social commentator.) It may also have come in under two-and-a-half sodding hours.
But her message is lost in the tomfoolery that surrounds her. Casting a woman in Yehuda’s role is fine, but doesn’t really add anything. Even Anna Gardiner’s exceptional design feels like little more than, well, set dressing. So, too, the underused and beautifully crafted video projections – flashy, but hardly grounded.
Independent theatres aspiring to the efforts of the Royal Court should emulate its model, not its material. Kill the old forms, herald the new. Freud is dead. Dalí is dead. Hysteria is dead. What our stages need is bleeding-edge analysis of the living audience, and not an autopsy.
Hysteria is playing at Eternity Playhouse until Sunday April 30.