IT TAKES A special balance of intellect and skill, depth of focus and an understanding of subtlety, texture, the shame and dignity of suffering, to say nothing of historical context to take the reins of a play as nuanced and rich as this work, Freud’s Last Session and enable it to seethe with merit and relevance. Alan Swerdlow directing Graham Hopkins opposite Antony Coleman together yield an unutterably fine rendition of a fantasy meeting between an old and dying Sigmund Freud, the Austrian father of psychoanalysis, and a young CS Lewis, then an Oxford professor of literary scholarship, still reeling from the Great War. And their subject at hand? God.
It’s a fictional but imminently feasible dialogue of the ilk of a play such as Hinterland that looked at a meeting between Cecil John Rhodes and Sol Plaatjies, staged at this theatre two years ago, that takes the overlapping time frame of two intellectual giants and asks some pertinent ‘what ifs’. But unlike Hinterland, this work reflects an enormous and detailed affinity with the period as well as the personas. It’s London on the cusp of World War Two. There’s a properness in the behaviour of both men and the way in which the space is decorated as well as in its wireless broadcasts and the palpability of the fear in the ether at the time.
With everything from the beautiful Art Deco radiogram to the Bakelite phone, the reference to Freud’s red chow Jofi and the conviviality of tea in the room containing the notorious psychiatrist’s divan, the work reeks of thoughtful authenticity and direct realism. The only anachronism is three screens bearing projected – and blurred – images of shelved books. It’s not clear why this very two-dimensional understanding of a patently multi-dimensional aspect to the room of a great reader and intellectual was decided on: the set’s use of the Kali statue, for instance, lend the work a particular energy.
Having said that, Hopkins and Coleman embody Freud and Lewis with resonant familiarity. Here are two giants of thought-making coming together to debate and tease apart one of the greatest mysteries of the human species. And they do it with the kind of understated charm that you imagine they would have, had they had the chance.
The quiet dignity of fierce debate conducted by men of great intelligence means that there’s no crass exchange of insults and yet the perspicacity of each man’s position is held with a grave tightness and a relentless conviction. But it’s not only godly things that come under both men’s scrutiny. Illness and terror pervade the conversation. It’s probably in the late 1930s and Freud’s oral cancer is well-advanced. Lewis is shell-shocked from his time in the Great War. But wit is woven into the material, reaching from Freud’s classic jokes to ‘fartist’ humour.
It’s a beautiful piece – an unforgettable one and easily among the strongest pieces of straight theatre in English that this city has seen in a while. It lends a complex and wise mix of the warmth of familiarity to readers and fans of both men’s writing as it paints a graphic portrait of the courage it takes to come to terms with one’s own mortality. Don’t miss this one: it’s a real achievement.
- Freud’s Last Session is written by Marc St. Germain and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is designed by Denis Hutchinson and performed by Antony Coleman and Graham Hopkins at Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until September 16. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883 8606.
- Currently also on the boards in Johannesburg is a production of one of CS Lewis’s most well-loved children’s classics, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
- Read a socio-political commentary which grapples with the focus of this play, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, here.