Any playwright who can conjure a meeting of minds between Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein, as Terry Johnson did in Insignificance, should find a fictional confrontation between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali a doddle.
Antony Sher (Sigmund Freud), Indira Varma (Jessica) and Will Keen (Salvador Dali) in Hysteria at the Theatre Royal, Bath Photo: Tristram Kenton
Their imaginary get-together is just one of the strands, though, of this multifaceted mix of out and out farce and thought-provoking dissection of two of Freud’s more familiar subconscious themes.
Freud, a gift of a role for the excellent Antony Sher, is terminally ill and seeking a quiet retirement in the garden suburb of Hampstead. He has failed to calculate, however, for the arrival of Indira Varma’s voluble student Jessica, seeking attention by shedding all her clothes (including her Freudian slip) and out to challenge Freud’s controversial research on sexual relationships in the family.
The slapstick quotient rises with the arrival of David Horovitch’s naive physician Dr Yahuda and Will Keen’s wildly eccentric Salvador Dali, who become rapidly enveloped in such iconic Whitehall farce devices as losing one’s trousers. However, Dr Yahuda is determined to keep under wraps his patient’s thesis that religion is the world’s worst neurosis and the threat that it poses for Jews faced with the Holocaust.
Here the audience experiences Johnson’s assured mix of comedy and intellectual argument, stretched even further by Freud’s own hallucinations over the rise of Nazism in his homeland Austria, stunningly illustrated in designer Lez Brotherston’s disintegrating set. As director as well as author, Johnson balances the play’s dual elements with considerable style.