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Review: Antony Sher in the odd and awkward Hysteria at the Hampstead theatre


Antony Sher as Professor Sigmund Freud in Hysteria. Photo by Tristram Kenton
Hysteria has a lot of potential on paper: Two big, very different and interesting personalities from history meet. On one side you have penis-envy psychologist Sigmund Freud (Antony Sher) and on the other avant garde, surrealist painter Salvadore Dali (Adrian Schiller).


The two did meet in London during the Second World War having fled conflict in their respective homelands - Austria and Spain - and if the play focused entirely on their meeting and the clash of personality then it might work. Equally if the play focused entirely on the second plot line - the unexpected arrival of a young woman who is obsessed with a past case of Freud's - then it might work but the two combined just sit really awkwardly.

The woman, Jessica, played by Lydia Wilson, blackmail's her way into Freud's study insisting he discuss the case, the reasons for which only becomes clear as the play progresses. What ensues can be summed up as an analysis of Freud's analysis of the oedipus complex. It is certainly interesting (particularly for an ex-psychology graduate) with the suggestion that Freud doctored his theories to better sit with the sensibilities of his middle-class supporters.

But crucially it is a dark and sobering subject matter that has a case of child sexual abuse at the centre whereas the meeting of Freud and Dali is played out as a farce. At the interval I wasn't the only one left wondering just exactly where playwright Terry Johnson was going with Hysteria.

The narrative does come neatly full circle but farce and paedophilia alongside each other? The play is not without merit, there are some great moments - humorous and harrowing. The performances are also outstanding; Antony Sher's effortless performance style is always a pleasure to watch and Lydia Wilson really cements herself as talent to watch and admire.

In its staging it pulls out a lot of unexpected stops when it segues into a Dali-inspired scene towards the end of the play, even if the nudity did feel a little gratuitous and unnecessary at that point.

This is definitely a case of the play not being quite the thing. Johnson could have made two very interesting but very different stories and in trying to tie them together has made something that is just awkward and odd. Not going to be a favourite play of the year.

Hysteria runs at the Hampstead Theatre until October 12.


Nice little direct connection, Adrian Schiller who plays Dali was in Richard II with Mr W.