A dimly lit room enveloped by candlelight, a desk adorned with theological antiquity, an overactive radio and telephone, and Freud’s infamous psychoanalytical chaise lounge are all that prove necessary to create the fraught atmosphere of terror and confusion that engulfed London in 1939.
Mark St Germain’s Freud’s Last Session finds its European premiere at Highbury and Islington’s King’s Head Theatre and Pub – a more than appropriate venue for this spiritual and intimate conversation between two of the twentieth century’s greatest intellectuals, Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. Despite the play’s contents being entirely fictional – and it being unclear if the two indeed ever met in real life – Germain’s writing outstandingly visualises the incessant butting of heads between two men equally as convinced of their opinions.
Believing that his senior intends to critique his recent satirisation of him, Lewis tentatively meets Freud in his London office, a mere fortnight before the outbreak of World War Two. What he assumed to be a dismissive and critical meeting turns into an imagined meeting of the minds that the audience becomes privy to and pondering their own personal philosophies long after leaving the theatre.
Dr Julian Bird, a psychiatrist turned actor, portrays Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud faultlessly, capturing the inner turmoil of a man who believes that he has ‘figured it all out’, yet covertly possesses a great fear of a cancer that he refuses to believe any ‘god’ has condemned him to. His booming voice asserts a dominance that can only come with experience, yet Séan Browne’s C.S. Lewis delivers an ecclesiastical force to be reckoned with, provoking and pushing a man so set in his ways. Striking nerves that an ailing Freud had perhaps forgotten struck so deeply, the dynamic between these two actors feels continuously accurate when the fictitious elements of this play are taken for what they are and appreciated.
Brad Caleb-Lee’s set design is minimal yet incredibly effective. Utilising few objects has allowed each and every detail to reiterate the melancholic narrative that menaces above the meeting – swirling newspapers, carefully placed photographs, and above all Freud’s desk which is carefully curated with artefacts that mirror the intellectual discussions. Aphrodite’s bust prompts deliberations on love, and the crumbling bandages of an Egyptian mummy arouse a conversation regarding the afterlife. The constant interruption of the phone and the radio serve as stark reminders of the fragility of life – violent disagreements become trivial against the backdrop of total war, as the argument becomes replaced by the air raid.
The audience is continuously drawn into the depths of the conversations at hand, contemplating where oneself lies surrounding these debates. The acceptance of science versus religion, the constitution of moral right and wrongs, and how God’s plan, if it exists, can be explained not only in the face of the oncoming European onslaught, but the monster inside of Freud’s mouth.
Germain’s writing is masterful, almost as if it had come to him like the divine intervention in a motorcycle’s sidecar that Lewis articulates. Freud’s Last Session is an unmissable imagination of philosophical discussion rife with macabre reminders that regardless of beliefs, tomorrow will always be uncertain, and that the unsaid too, speaks volumes.
Freud’s Last Session will be playing at the King’s Head Theatre until February 12th, 2022.