Freud meets Dali as Hysteria comes to Suffolk and Essex theatres
- Credit: Archant
The Olivier-winning farce Hysteria about the meeting of Sigmund Freud and surreal artist Salvador Dali in Hampstead in 1938 is being staged at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds and the Colchester Mercury as part of a nationwide tour.
Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to actors Moray Treadwell and John Dorney about the unique nature of Terry Johnson’s play – how it manages to combine frenetic farce with thoughtful drama.
Life is a mix of emotions. It’s a balance of light and shade, happy and sad – a blend of the frivolous and the profound.
It’s a complex equation which is really hard to achieve on stage because theatre thrives on concentrating on either the drama or the comedy but actors Moray Treadwell and John Dorney believe that National Theatre playwright Terry Johnson, the writer responsible for such hits as Mrs Henderson Presents, Dead Funny and Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick may have hit upon a winning balance in the dramatic farce Hysteria.
Both actors say that the award-winning wordsmith has managed to create a hilarious farce that also manages to keep its feet anchored in the real world. For the actors it has meant a demanding rehearsal schedule learning the beats of the performance, understanding where the laughs are going to come and where the drama takes precedence.
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The play is set in 1938 and documents a meeting in Hampstead between Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and surreal artist Salvador Dali.
Moray explains: “Freud has fled Nazi-occupied Austria and settled in Swiss Cottage. The ageing Freud intends to spend his last days in peaceful contemplation, but when Salvador Dali pays a visit, and discovers a naked woman in the closet, intoxicating mayhem ensues.
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“It’s a brilliant play that’s huge fun but also offers some thoughtful moments and that is why it is such fun to play – and to watch. It manages to capture that balance that we all experience through life and you need the sad to make the happy times really joyful.”
John Dorney says that it is no accident that the play won the Olivier award for Best Comedy in 1994 because it is a unique piece of work. “I have never played anything that mixes the genres quite so much. The nearest thing I can equate it with is Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. I love the fact that it switches between performance styles during the course of the play. I think of all the characters in the play I have a slightly easier time of it. I play Salvador Dali and he is so surreal and such a chaotic character that he is the one who changes the least.”
Although he spent quite a lot of time watching YouTube videos of real Dali and reading up on his life, Dorney says that in the end he relied on Terry Johnson’s fast-paced script to give him the biggest clues as to how to play the role.
“It’s very much a heightened version of events, as any farce would be, and Terry has provided all the information you need with his wonderful words. When you see the real Dali interviewed it’s all rather baffling. You don’t really know what he means so you have to rely on Terry’s words to get a sense of who he is. Also you have to remember you are playing a character in a play who isn’t necessarily the same person as the real Dali.”
For Moray the switching between performance styles was one of the biggest challenges. “Hysteria is a weird and wonderful beast and it took me a while to get my head around it for that very reason. If you are playing it for drama you are thinking what will my character be doing now, how would they stand, what would they be doing but in the farce elements you have to hit the beats or the whole thing collapses, so trying to combine the two schools of acting is a huge challenge but thrilling none the less.
“Your character still has to be there, he still has to be believable but it also has to work within the context of the play essentially being a farce.
“My role as Dr Abraham Yahuda is very much the stooge and straight man and is much more rooted in reality. But, having said that, he has some great one-liners and I think my job is maintaining a sense of integrity in the middle of all this chaos and mayhem.”
He says that Yahuda is the axis around him the farce revolves. “Basically if my character finds out what is happening them the game’s over. Just who is the strange naked woman in the closet?
“The whole thing is performed on a series of beats and the tempo can change in an instant and the timing has to be instinctive. It’s almost has if there are two plays running in tandem and certainly it felt like that during the rehearsal process and gradually as we became acclimatised to the play everything started to gell together.”
Both Moray and John agree that one of the real joys of the play is putting these seemingly real characters into absurd situations and just enjoy what happens.
“There’s a lot of laughter but it also offers something to think about which makes the evening more powerful because like life laughter helps you cope with the dark times and you need trials to put your good life into some context. It’s a brilliantly constructed play...”
And Moray adds: “It will be great to play it at Bury Theatre Royal because the audience is just so close. They will really feel part of what is happening on stage. The play has an intimacy to it that will work well in a theatre like Bury.”
Hysteria by Terry Johnson is at Bury Theatre Royal from February 21-25 and at Colchester Mercury from May 18-20