By BRUCE DENNILL
Freud’s Last Session / Directed by Alan Swerdlow / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
It’s fantastic to see a piece of theatre that is unashamedly intellectual, focusing for almost its entire running time on a single, complex conversation between characters known for their intelligence rather than their glamour or celebrity value. It is, in some ways, the stage (and fictional) equivalent of one of the superb filmed debates between journalist Christopher Hitchens and Oxford professor John Lennox, not least because Sigmund Freud (Graham Hopkins), like Hitchens, was perhaps the most famous atheist of his generation, and CS Lewis (Antony Coleman) was, like Lennox, one of the leading Christian apologists of the time.
Of course, Freud and Lewis were world-famous for much more besides, and this legacy – known to some degree by a large proportion of the production’s audience – that gives the script considerable weight without playwright Mark St Germain having to provide long, drawn-out exposition.
The story is set in 1939, just as the Second World War began, in the study Freud had set up in his rooms in London after fleeing the Nazis in Austria. Everything on stage has import – Freud was an incredibly precise man, with wide-ranging interests, and the day bed on which his patients lay during their sessions has such presence that it’s almost a character on its own. Lewis feels the pull of that piece of furniture (and its association with Freud’s work) during his time in the office, and there are other props – historical bric-a-brac that the doctor has collected – that give Lewis, and the audience, insight into Freud’s unspoken thoughts about the topic at hand, which is the existence of, or nature of, God.
This meeting between never happened, but St Germain’s construction of the dialogue they might have had is believable, thanks to the detailed documentation they left behind and the many biographical tomes written about their lives and perspectives. It’s the sort of verbal jousting that is entertaining to watch in any setting and when it centres on any topic, but more so when the protagonists are as intelligent and witty as these. Director Alan Swerdlow ensures that, though there is very little movement during the pair’s conversation, what actions there are are crisp, precise and significant, heightening the impact of the words and adding another level of communication to boot.
The actors make the best possible use of this foundation. Hopkins performs the whole piece with a prosthetic in his mouth to help him recreate the strange way in which Freud articulated his word towards the end of his life as a result of an aggressive cancer that destroyed the roof of his mouth and was causing ongoing decay around his jaw area. This, added to a perfectly cultivated accent and the actor’s physical resemblance to the psychoanalyst, makes for an always convincing and occasionally eerie suggestion of Freud’s headspace. This is not to say that Hopkins has merely put together an impression of the man. On the contrary, in this scenario, Freud has to be the less sympathetic character, and Hopkins does brilliantly to soften his edges and even the playing field, allowing the audience to feel as much for the cynical scientist as they do for the man who imagined a winter wonderland beyond the back of a closet.
Coleman matches his colleague in every moment, helping to reveal that Lewis had plenty of steel along with his apparent gentleness. He excels in the couple of moments when the war intrudes directly into the action, with his expressions and posture conveying the overwhelming fear his character feels as a result of the trauma Lewis suffered as a soldier fighting in the First World War.
This is compact, meticulous theatre, and it satisfies intellectually, artistically and emotionally.