THEATRE Hysteria, Duke of York's, WC2

Robert Hanks is enlightened by the strange case of Terry J
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The Independent Culture
The subject, Terry J, is a writer, the author of a number of highly successful plays dealing with themes of considerable intellectual complexity, but which often disguise the difficulties of the ideas under discussion with lighter moments. It is suggestive that Terry J has sometimes given these plays titles - Insignificance, Hysteria - apparently calculated to "downplay" their intellectual aspects, tempting one to infer that what is being presented has no importance, or merely neurotic ravings.

On the present occasion, Terry J offered for consideration the play entitled Hysteria - a sustained and, it would seem, recurring fantasy (since it was previously presented to the public at the Royal Court Theatre in 1993) concerning the last months of Sigmund Freud. (The figure of the elderly male savant, greatly respected yet unable to bear full moral responsibility for the consequences of his work, is also central to the play Insignificance; the bearing of this fact on Terry J's relationship with his own father is, perhaps, too obvious to merit further discussion.)

In this fantasy, the onlooker encounters Freud - represented with notable empathic skill by Henry Goodman - in his study in Hampstead. Here he is approached by a girl, apparently hysterical, intent on discussing one of his earlier cases - a Rebecca S, whom Freud has regarded as a signal therapeutic success, but who, it emerges, has later killed herself in an insane asylum. The reported method of suicide (forcing water down a rubber tube into the stomach) is of interest when compared with the scene in Terry J's earlier play, Insignificance, in which a woman suffers irreparable gynaecological damage through being kicked in the stomach.

That Terry J is ambivalent as to the efficacy of the psychoanalytic method is plain from the manner in which he manoeuvres his fictional Freud into grotesque situations where his efforts to maintain his dignity result in its being irretrievably compromised - so that at one point a respected friend discovers him panting over the untrousered bottom of the unconscious Salvador Dali (a comical figure portrayed with some panache by Tim Potter). Freud is thus convicted of hypocrisy - his insistence that he has nothing to hide is shown to be false - while remaining a sympathetic figure, to be pitied rather than censured.

In this context, it will not be taken as a breach of professional etiquette if I remark that at several points during the evening I laughed out loud. Phyllida Lloyd's staging of the final dream sequence must be accounted a remarkable coup de theatre, as well. Nevertheless, while the humorous and the serious are throughout yoked together with admirable ingenuity, one feels at times that the disparate elements are not wholly integrated. This suggests that Terry J has not fully resolved his feelings about psychoanalysis, or indeed about his own parents. I look forward eagerly to observing his future progress in this regard.

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