Theatre Review: Hysteria is a complex and surreal experience (Performances in Sydney until 30th April)

What happens when two masters of the unconscious meet at opposing ends of their careers? It’s an idea explored thoroughly by Hysteria, in which a near-death Sigmund Freud accepts a visit from a flashy young painter named Salvador Dali. In tribute to the genius of both men, Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Hysteria is complex, thought-provoking and beautifully produced. But it falls just short of being great entertainment.

Hysteria takes its premise from a real-life meeting between Freud and Dali in the late 1930s. Despite their shared passion for the interpretation of dreams, it is understood that little conversation passed between the two, given that Dali spoke no German or English at the time. In Hysteria, award-winning playwright, Terry Johnson, ponders what would have happened if these two icons were able to speak as equals. Throw in a rain-soaked young girl with a penchant for undressing, Freud’s bemused physician, liberal smatterings of Freudian theory and more than a few surrealist concepts and you’re faced with a play that rolls bizarrely between door-slamming comedy and gut-wrenching dramatic realism.

Johnson’s play is incredibly well researched. From the direct quotes from the writing of Freud to the analysis of Metamorphosis of Narcissus, one of Dali’s most famous works, there is so much detail here it’s difficult to process in one viewing. Fans of either man will enjoy these references; those without an in-depth knowledge will miss out on what makes this work so clever. Similarly, an understanding of the theatrical workings of English Farce helps make sense of the confusing comedic elements, which seem at odds with the serious themes the play explores.

Director, Susanna Dowling, has assembled a cast and crew with seemingly the same level of attention to detail as the author, because both the production elements and the characterisations are meticulously rendered.

Anna Gardiner’s production design achieves the perfect balance between realism and theatrical surrealism. At first glance, the set appears to be an ordinary study in an English terrace: glass doors opening onto an unseen garden, writing desk and shelves littered with obscure artefacts, and – befitting the world’s most famous psychoanalyst – a chair and couch paired neatly together.

But on closer inspection you realise that all is not quite right. The absence of artwork (save one Picasso) on the walls frees them up to become a cinematic canvas, onto which Dali-esque black-and-white images are projected periodically throughout the piece. The left-hand wall sits on a sharp angle, causing the doors it houses to open more like trap-doors than traditional ones. This does require extra effort on the part of the actors to avoid gravity taking over, but they all manage very well.

The props, too, have been expertly curated. A quick Google search post show revealed that the snail-covered bike that is wheeled onstage early in the piece was in fact something observed by Dali upon his visit to Freud’s London residence. The clock on the wall bares a strong resemblance to Dali’s famous melting timepieces, and no doubt much thought went into the selection of the miniature monuments on Freud’s desk.

Also very realistic is the atmospheric sound design by Katelyn Shaw. Lesser productions would opt to leave the sounds of the outside world – rain, thunder, German fighter planes – to the imagination of the audience. Instead, Shaw delivers them to us confidently, making no apologies for unsettling the audience with loud bangs and eerie music when required.

Adding to this rich world are costumes and wigs that transform the two male actors into dead-ringers for their characters. Freud’s greyed, receding hair and distinctive beard are worn with ease by Jo Turner and Michael McStay takes genuine pleasure in twiddling the ends of his famous moustache.

Turner and McStay do not let the team down in their own interpretations of such recognisable individuals. Turner’s accent is excellent, consistent throughout even in periods of intense agitation. His mannerisms, too, are well rehearsed, even if at times he betrays his age. McStay’s Dali may come across as hammy and over-the-top, but this was, in fact, how the man was in real life (although with less English at his disposal). Miranda Daughtry, as the mysterious Jessica, has a beautiful, plummy accent which lends itself perfectly to English society. She is also extremely convincing during her fits of hysteria. And as Freud’s physician, Wendy Strehlow makes an admirable man, if a little lacking in strong character traits.

Together, they manage to keep the action moving throughout the very long first act. The script calls for slapstick and mayhem, as well as pinpoint accuracy in delivery. Johnson’s script is very witty, but not all the jokes were well received by the opening night audience. This may have been due in part to Dowling’s odd directional choice to have the actors frequently turn their backs to the audience. Yes, it contributes to the sense we are peeking in on a real world, but it makes it pretty difficult to see the actors reacting to one another.

With all the positive things going for it, Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Hysteria should be excellent entertainment. Unfortunately, there is just a little something missing. Whether it was the complex themes, the odd coupling of drama and farce, or even just the fact the audience was kept waiting in the foyer on this particular night while the production team sorted out some technical issues, the laughs were definitely hard to come by. But they are there and perhaps on another night the spark might just appear to ignite what has all the makings of a raging success.

Hysteria is playing showing at the Eternity Playhouse in Sydney until 30th April, 2017. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night on Wednesday 5th April.

Photo credit Robert Catto