If Irish scholar and celebrated novelist CS Lewis were to pay a visit to Austrian neurologist and founding father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud what might the two men be keen to debate?
And what significance would their discussion have when played out against the looming threat of Nazi invasion and the advent of the Second World War? The question persists as BBC Radio and its war-time broadcasts, act as a third character in Mark St Germain’s Freud’s Last Session, immersing the audience in a pivotal moment in history, but also as a character to distract and undermine the dialogue exchange between CS Lewis (Séan Browne) and Sigmund Freud (Julian Bird). There are just too many BBC bulletins played throughout the play. But getting back to the debate that takes place between these two great scholars.
In Freud’s Last Session, St Germain imagines the two men grappling with two sides of the same question, ‘Does God exist?’, with CS Lewis on the angelic ‘Aye’ side of the debate and Freud on its prickly ‘Nay’. The audience can imagine these two learned men in separate corners of a philosophical boxing ring, ready to duke it out when the bell rings and with some fancy footwork to avoid losing to a well-prepared argument.
Except there’s no referee to call time on the predictable tropes of one-upmanship which become incredulous when played against an image of Freud as a broken-down, diseased, embittered shell of a man. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘a once-great man’ because there is nowhere in the writing that indicates Freud’s greatness and the power of his ideas that permeate the ether, even now in the 21st Century. There is one small throw-away line where Freud expresses his interest in art, when, in actuality, it’s the mainstay of his existence.
Surely, if Freud were to argue against the existence of God, he need only refer to art in all its forms to make his point. According to Freud, art renders a need for God superfluous. That would more likely be his argument – while CS Lewis would rightfully cling to JRR Tolkien and William Butler Yeats to support his unwavering belief in Christian principles.
For an actor to grapple with the essence of Freud is no easy feat – and make no mistake – Julian Bird throws the essence of his own being into it, tackling the character of the 83-year-old pioneer psychoanalyst to the ground and, like a mythical hero, literally ripping Freud’s teeth from his jaw – and with CS Lewis an accomplice to the act.
And so the play becomes a metaphor for many things: a god-fearing Britain against a godless Adolf Hitler; the concept of a benevolent creator against science and its hard facts; ripping Freud’s godless words from his mouth – and the psychoanalytic trope of the son’s wish to murder the father, albeit with rhetoric and seemingly good intent – which does come through in the CS Lewis character, even though he appears to be a scrubbed-up young man in his Sunday best.
I can’t say much about who comes a cropper in the ‘Does God Exist?’ debate because there is a point in the play where Freud tells a fart joke about a street performer who farts for a living. He tells it in great detail, with extensive body contortions and gestures, just in case you might not get the punch line. I just couldn’t square the circle but if you enjoy jokes about bad smells, perhaps it’s reason enough to see the play.
Review by Loretta Monaco
The first of September, 1939. Sigmund Freud, the world-renowned psychoanalyst awaits the visit of soon to be legendary author C.S. Lewis on the day World War 2 is declared. Lewis, a former atheist turned Christian is expecting to be taken to task for his recent satirisation of Freud in a book. However, the impending war and Freud’s failing health catalyses a far deeper conversation as they clash about the existence of God, love, sex, and the meaning of life – only two weeks before Freud, with his doctor’s help, takes his own.
Through an imagined conversation between a psychiatrist on the brink and the academic who would go on to write books steeped in theology, the play gives a heightened tension to the age-old questions of faith, love, sex and existence itself.
Writer Mark St. Germain
Director Peter Darney
Set and Costume Designer Brad Caleb Lee
Sound design by Sam Glossop
Doctor Julian Bird and Sean Browne
18 January – 12 February 2022
King’s Head Theatre, 115, Upper Street, London N1 1QN