It is not difficult to see why Hysteria, currently running at Hampstead Theatre, received an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy when it was first performed at the Royal Court in 1993. The play, set in 1938, re-imagines a historical meeting between Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and Salvador Dalí, the prominent Spanish surrealist painter. Freud, who is battling terminal cancer, is dozing off in his Hampstead study when he is interrupted by a series of unexpected visitors.
A young woman named Jessica interrupts his evening, asking for a consultation. She threatens to disrobe if turned down by Freud. When Freud’s physician comes calling, he is forced to hide the now disrobed Jessica in a closet. Thus ensues much hilarity.
Jessica does end up “lying on the couch” but soon it is Freud who must explain himself when Jessica forces him to reconsider his theories about childhood sexual fantasy in light of her revelations. Jessica’s determination to confront Freud gains a Surrealist dimension with the subsequent arrival of Dalí allowing for mistaken identities, Freudian slips and farce. But the dark undertones divulge Freud’s incredulity of the childhood sexual abuse suffered by his Viennese patients. Jessica re-enacts a previous patient’s hysterical symptoms and we soon come to understand how the unconscious mind protected the patient from further stress. Meanwhile, Dali’s paintings and Johnson’s homage to Un Chien Andalou, Dali and Buñuel’s 1929 surrealist movie, create a kaleidoscope of images from the subconscious and the surreal.
Johnson adroitly weaves farcical moments with serious issues, allowing the audience to enjoy the play at many levels, placing psychoanalysis and surrealism within the story while simultaneously exploring their tenets. Anthony Sher is on a roll with another excellent performance. His Freud is brilliant as the reclusive intellectual whose life gradually descends into a surrealist tableau. While Lydia Wilson, as Jessica, navigates the comic and dark situations with the right intensity. Adrian Schiller’s Dalí is hilarious as a narcissistic sycophant with a strong Spanish accent and David Horovitch’s Dr Yahuda plays Freud’s respectable Jewish doctor with increasing dismay and disappointment.
Johnson directs his own play with aplomb creating an extremely enjoyable evening, which manages to be both very funny and deep. The design by Lez Brotherston takes us into Freud’s study complete with Oriental rug which ultimately breaks into a spectacular dream-induced surrealist scene. It’s a fantastic play that is clever, funny and thoughtful. Is there any other reason to go to the theatre?