Freud’s Last Session

Theatre Royal, August 15

Is there a God? Can a play illuminate the issue in any way in 80 minutes? Mark St Germain has tested this possibility with a well-crafted piece based on the hypothesis that a celebrated atheist (Sigmund Freud) and a celebrated Christian (CS Lewis) met in London in 1939, just as war was declared, and debated the issue.

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Henry Szeps (Freud) and Douglas Hansell (Lewis). Photo: Mel Koutchavlis.

St Germain’s is a good rather than a great play that engenders a memorable performance from Henri Szeps as Freud. Traces of the Szeps we know from other roles – he was last seen as the rascally, terminally-ill Ron in It’s My Party in April – all but disappear as Szeps becomes Freud in a masterful transformation of body and voice.

The old God argument can never be entirely rational, because one side laces its argument with faith. Almost inevitably, therefore, St Germain’s Freud tends dominate the debate. He is older, wiser and basically more likeable. Given this, the actor playing Lewis needs to bring an appeal that is not written into the character for the play to work to its maximum potential. Douglas Hansell cannot quite bring this to bear, although he does a very good job of providing a credible Lewis. There are, however, tiny seams in his acting that might never have been noticed were he not sharing the stage with such an imposing character realisation.

The relationship is further skewed by Lewis being 50 years younger than Freud, with all the relative brashness that this implies. Not that he has sole claim to self-righteousness: Freud is too used to acclaim to readily tolerate being gainsaid. Yet he his relentlessly methodical, where faith raises Lewis to a pitch of petulance on occasion, especially when he rubbishes the other great religions, basically because they do not have Christ as the Messiah.

Adam Cook as tackled the difficult task of directing a play in which two characters do little more than hold a metaphysical discussion in Freud’s study. In such a scenario it would be so easy to move the characters about for artificial reasons, but Cook’s blocking has a natural fluidity that is not afraid to embrace long static periods when they are right for the play. Mark Thompson’s realistic set, meanwhile, has leather-bound volumes in floor-to-ceiling shelves surrounding Freud’s desk and famous couch.

Freud’s daughter, Anna, is an unseen third character that one half-felt may have benefited the play by making an entrance and sparking another side of Lewis. Instead the third party is the unfolding beginning of the war, which they periodically catch on Freud’s big wireless. Or perhaps it is the excruciating prosthetic roof to Freud’s mouth, which causes him such grief in his affliction with mouth cancer, and which reduces the metaphysics to the reality of suffering humanity, and allows Szeps to offer a performance that may be the triumph of his career.

Until September 8.