Henri Szeps and Douglas Hansell in Freud's Last Session | Theatre Royal

As far as I’m aware, C. S. (Clive Staples, I learn) Lewis and Sigmund Freud never, actually, met. They didn’t need to, of course, thanks to Freud’s Last Session, by Mark St. Germain which, in its local debut, features Henri Szeps, as Freud, and Douglas Hansell, as Lewis; (not to mention the set, by Mark Thompson, which achieves both impressive scale and a very convincing illusion of authenticity, as regards time and place, as well as an almost pedantic attention to detail). Adam Cook directs in, depending how you look at it, in a disciplined, or restrained, manner. Adam Liberman is the producer, a virgin who’s put the play on, apparently, for the best possible reason. He loves it.

The playwright pays due homage to his inspiration: the book, The Question Of God, by Dr Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. As Nicholi points out, it’a a matter of historical record that a young Oxford professor did call upon Freud, after his urgent emigration to England. That it might’ve been Lewis, however, is little more than a piquant possibility, if a tempting one from a dramatic standpoint, given that each embodies a polar position in that dialectic central to human existence: did we explode into being, or were we fashioned?

Freud is in his booklined lair when we meet him. It’s everything you expect. Substantial. Timbered. Quite grand. It has an academic air; you can almost smell the mildew. And, of course, there’s a couch. It projects conservatism which, in sofa as Freud is portrayed here, seems like a profound irony for, even in his dying days, he’s portrayed as feisty, rigorous, argumentative, interrogative, curious and, in some sense, radical. He’s at least as much angry young man as resigned, crusty old bugger. Szeps is well-cast as the good doctor, taking on a persuasive approximation of an Austrian accent, with few lapses. When we meet the ailing Siggy, he’s expecting a guest of honour; the famous young professor and Freud’s family dog barking signals the anticipated arrival.

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After shortlived pleasantries, Freud and Lewis launch headlong into a debate about their differences. Freud has no truck with religion, or God. He regards faith and belief in such things as delusional and neurotic. Both men are adept at constructing strong arguments, though they may not always stand up to intensive scrutiny in terms of internal logic. They are, however, articulate, appealing and charismatic. Lewis, of course, is the reformed smoker of Christians. Like Freud, he’s stitched-up in appearance, but rather more original and adventurous in his thinking. Hansell plays the ascendant, forty-one-year-old Lewis most effectively, as the quintessential English chap of his era.

There’s an intimacy about the interaction between the two, though, that isn’t served by the large stage or theatre, which makes it that much harder to engage with what is an overwhelmingly intellectual exercise, rather than an emotional one. The emotional cues are there, (whether they be related to the catalyst for Lewis’ epiphany or the backdrop of a war just dawning and what that meant, especially, for the likes of Freud, non-observant Jew, or not), but they tend to be secondary to the finer points of the debate. This makes for a somewhat dry, dramatised dissertation on why and how it is we are here and the ways in which, depending on one’s fundamental view, it informs the way we we live our lives.

Like the staunch, late Christopher Hitchins, Freud, despite being in the grip of oral cancer and sliding fast when we meet him, isn’t about to seek last-minute solace in the spiritual and works at giving every impression he needs no comfort in the face of death. This stands in stark contrast to the odd reflective moment and the very obvious attachment Freud has to his daughter, Anna; one which, were he able to stand outside the relationship, he might’ve rightly regarded as at least somewhat pathological. Still and all, he is portrayed as utterly mentally undiminished; in fact, as sharp as ever, if not, ironically, at the absolute peak of his powers. When Lewis and Freud come to verbal blows, now and then, it’s Freud that tends to prevail; whether this be the author’s express intention, or not, or the organic outcome, if you will, of speculative extrapolations of character, I cannot say.

There are issues with sound design (on opening night I really had to concentrate to discern everything Szeps said and some lines were lost), but considering (as I understand it and for whatever reason) the actors had only a little over two weeks to rehearse, this production is about as good as it can be, limited by a somewhat emotionally desolate script which has been, perhaps, a little too faithfully interpreted by Adam Cook to transcend itself.

Superb writing. Good craft. I particularly liked the historic radio broadcasts used to establish context, urgency and pathos. There are one or two truly dramatic scenes, but the rest tends to be drenched in academic and philosophical concerns. All in all it creeps over the try line, rather than making a spectacular touchdown. One has to question whether a tantalising premise really translates to a play of equal intrigue.

The details: Freud’s Last Session plays the Theatre Royal until September 1. Tickets via Ticketmaster.

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