Farce is the bright side of the tragic mask – and vice versa. Take Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, which postulates a meeting between the fathe of psychology Sigmund Freud and surreal painter and sculptor Salvador Dali. The one is Viennese old-school, formal – almost repressed, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction – coming to the end of his life with non-curable cancer, in exile, in Hampstead.
The other is as extrovert in his flamboyant lifestyle as on canvas or marble. He too is an exile, in just as many ways as Freud. Both try to shut out those aspects of the late 1930s which they knw they cannot ameliorate and which are therefore better left to simmer by themselves. But in farce, reality keeps on butting in; for Freud it is persnified by his doctor and friend Abraham Yahuda who sees all too clearly what Kristalinacht is heralding.
All good farces require doors to be locked or flung open at the author’s whim. There should also be a scantily-clad young woman and the development of a whole sequence of situations which the other characters always misunderstand. Enter Jessica, in search of a particular case notebook. The trouble for any director, here London Classic Theatre’s Michael Cabot, is that our perceptions of what are now historical characters and events have changed (I hesitate to say, matured) in the past 24 years.
There’s an excellent set by James Perkins and a real sense of ensemble playing (a prerequisite for farce) from the cast. Ged McKenna is sympathetic, as well as deliberately infuriating, as Freud while John Dorney gives a nuancedly over-the-top portrait of Dali, a many who is not alays sure that he is entirely comfortable in the persona he has created for himself.
Moray Treadwell’s Dr Yahuda comes over as a man who has made a place for himself in this strange country while being actively concerned with the fate of those less fortunate than he. Summer Strallen is a soft-voiced Jessica, which may suit the young woman’s quiet determination to achieve what she so desperately wants, however embarrassingthe situations into which that leads her. But it does put a strain on the audience’s attention, particularly in the first scene.
Three and a half-star rating
Hysteria is at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 8 Febryary and tours nationally until 20 May, including the Key Theatre, Peterborough (7-8 March) and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (18-20 May).