Freud's Last Session

Mark St Germain
Nearly There Productions
King's Head Theatre

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Séan Browne as C S Lewis and Julian Bird as Sigmund Freud Credit: Alex Brenner
Julian Bird as Sigmund Freud Credit: Alex Brenner
Séan Browne as C S Lewis Credit: Alex Brenner
Séan Browne as C S Lewis and Julian Bird as Sigmund Freud Credit: Alex Brenner

Directed by Peter Darney, this production is the first in Europe of a play that premièred Off Broadway in 2009. It is an intellectual debate rather than a drama that is credited as being “suggested by” The Question of God by Armand M Nicholi, a book which puts side by side the opposing arguments of two intellectuals, Christian academic and author C S Lewis and atheist Sigmund Freud. In real life, they never met, but Mark St Germain has imagined a meeting and set it in Freud’s study in his house in Swiss Cottage on the very day that the UK declared war on Germany in 1939.

It is a room which, as Freud tells Lewis, his daughter Anna created as a replica of his Vienna office and designer Brad Caleb Lee here gives us his desk, on which are some of the religious figures and gods from ancient cultures which he collected, while a stage cloth painted with surreal images and a scattering of pseudo candles suggest the subconscious world of Freud’s theories.

Freud had written to Lewis asking him to visit and he arrives thinking that Freud is seeking an apology for making a character in one of his books a satirical portrait of the psychoanalyst, but he’s wrong. Freud has summoned him to ask him why he suddenly became a Christian and “abandoned the truth”. He doesn’t get an exact answer, we get the circumstances but not a real reason and their conversation becomes a much wider theological discussion from Freud’s theories about Moses to evil as an instrument of God.

This is a play without action though the talk is regularly interrupted by phone calls and Freud switching on the radio as he tries to keep up with what is happening, but, as well as religion argument, we get glimpses into their private lives, while concern over the start of the war provides an underlying tension.

The house in Maresfield Gardens is now a museum but Freud was only in England a year and a few months between his flight from Vienna, where Hitler’s Brownshirts had broken down his door, and his death. Mouth cancer had led to an operation that removed his palate and upper jaw. He wore a prosthesis that gave him constant pain: it hurt more when he talked but that doesn’t stop him talking.

There are moments of humour: though Freud’s idea of a joke my not seem funny, he surprisingly recalls a performance by Petomane Joseph Pujol (the famous farter) but when they talk of any afterlife, he is deadly serious. “Look in my mouth,” he says, “you will see that hell has already arrived.”

This is a superb performance from Julian Bird as Sigmund Freud, he really makes you feel the pain he is enduring. If there is a God and (s)he is a good God, how could such suffering be part of his/her plan? “Theologians,” says Freud, “hide behind their ignorance.”

Sean Browne as C S Lewis delivers his arguments with less passion but, though he is reticent to discuss personal matters, after an air raid siren makes both men dive for their gas masks, he reveals himself in his account of his wartime experience and wounding in the 1914–18 conflict and shows a compassionate nature in his immediate response when Freud is in agony.

Like St Paul on the road to Damascus, Lewis suddenly found belief as he rode in the sidecar of a motorcycle. It sounds simple but Freud says, “things are only simple if you choose not to examine things.”

Through this eighty-minute duologue, St Germain’s play only skims the surface of this confrontation between belief and non-belief. The interruptions that are intended to enliven it serve to point up that it it doesn’t dig deeper and emphasises the lack of real drama, but anyone not already well informed about the lives of these men will come away with some new insight into their lives.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton