Freud and Dali in 'Ooops, There Go My Neuroses'

<i>Hysteria</i> | Minerva Theatre, Chichester
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The Independent Culture

Superbly revived now by Loveday Ingram in Chichester, Hysteria is the 1993 play in which Terry Johnson brings a dying Freud into farcical collision in his Hampstead home with Salvador Dalí and a vengeful interloping young woman who is the daughter of one of the psychiatrist's supposed successes - an agoraphobic anorexic cured when analysis triggered a memory of being raped by her father.

Superbly revived now by Loveday Ingram in Chichester, Hysteria is the 1993 play in which Terry Johnson brings a dying Freud into farcical collision in his Hampstead home with Salvador Dalí and a vengeful interloping young woman who is the daughter of one of the psychiatrist's supposed successes - an agoraphobic anorexic cured when analysis triggered a memory of being raped by her father.

Excuse me? Into farcical collision with Salvador Dalí and what? Yes there is a tricky clash of registers here and moments when propelling this woman into an uproarious farce seems to evince all the good taste of, say, shoving a famine victim onto a TV game show to compete for a candlelit dinner for two in a restaurant of his choice.

But there are also long stretches of this brilliant and unsettling work where you gratefully succumb to the notion that it's a modern classic. Johnson's outrageously fertile insight is that there is a perfect metaphoric co-relation between the mad mechanism of farce and Freudian method. So there's a poetic justice in boomeranging the genre back at psychiatry's Moses. The result could be subtitled "Ooops, There Go My Neuroses", or "Couch Potatoes"! In a naughty fabrication, Johnson alleges that Freud has just got back from a performance of Rookery Nook.

Hysteria is Rookery Nook after a chronic collision with Dalí-esque surrealism and the addition of some dazzling intellectual slapstick.

The main joy of this production is Guy Henry's blissfully funny impersonation of the giraffe-like Hispanic egomaniac. In a lovely touch, he sports only one half of the full trademark moustache: the other half looks pretty neutered, perhaps the victim of his pettishly snapping the Dadaist manifesto shut on it. It's a glorious performance because Henry plays Dalí with a mad-eyed graceful containment. However indecorous the circumstances, his back is always punctiliously straight, so that in his three-piece suit he seems to be simultaneously the Myth and the Myth's custodian, hushed with an employee's reverence for himself.

Ingram's cast are uniformly excellent. The character of the girl, with her compulsive washing gestures and her dry retching, can never be wholly assimilated into the romp, and indeed shouldn't be. But Alison McKenna's enormously skillful performance builds more bridges between the play's disparate features than the actress who created the role in 1993.

While Ian Bartholomew lacks the charisma Henry Goodman brought to Freud, he is increasingly impressive as the psychiatrist drifts, near the end, into the world of tragic recognition and denial. Clive Swift, meanwhile, gives proceedings a boost of real intellectual bite as Yahuda, the doctor who is incensed that Freud is writing unhelpful iconoclastic things about Jewish history in, of all years, 1938.

Influenced by Jeffrey Masson, the play climaxes in a highly tendentious account of why Freud came to change his theory of child abuse, swapping the idea that it is a fact to the contention that it is a fantasy born of desire in the child. Johnson's implication that this switch was defensive and self-serving is itself pretty self-serving. But Freud will rise above it.

As for Hysteria, it joins Kafka's Dick, by Alan Bennett, in the ranks of those plays that change the definition of farce. The genre is usually described as depicting ordinary men in extraordinary situations because of extraordinary reasoning, but Johnson and Bennett show with cock-snooking glee that extraordinary men can also wind up with their conceptual trousers round their ankles.

To 28 Oct (01243 781312)

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