Clash of the Titans
SYDNEY: An imagined encounter between Sigmund Freud and CS Lewis results in an epic clash of ideology in Freud’s Last Session, writes Garrett Bithell.
What would have happened if Sigmund Freud, rabid atheist and the father of psychoanalysis, invited rigorous Christian apologist CS Lewis to his house for a little chat?
This conceit underpins Martin St Germain’ssharp and spirited two-hander Freud’s Last Session, which after a successful premiere Off Broadway in 2010, is getting a Sydney production at the Theatre Royal starring two very different actors. Theatre stalwart Henri Szeps, of Mother and Son fame, plays Freud; and up-and-coming talent Douglas Hansell plays Lewis.
St Germain sets this imagined encounter in 1939 England. Freud has escaped Vienna – and the swelling Nazi movement under Hitler – and is now in London. He is 83 years old, and tortured by both his exile and the excruciating pain of an inoperable mouth cancer. Lewis, on the other hand, is a 40-year-old Oxford professor who, after 20 years an atheist, has returned to Christianity with a vengeance. He hasn’t conceived of Narnia yet, but is nevertheless a respected academic.
Over 90 minutes, these two famous historical characters battle it out in Freud’s office, traversing God, love, sex and the meaning of life in a furious war of words. ‘I want to learn why a man of your intellect, one who shared my convictions, could suddenly abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie,’ Freud tells Lewis, who himself is more than capable of articulating his position.
“The play hangs on the clash of ideas, butit’s also about two personalities, two upbringings, two people at different stages of their lives, and they’re clashing heads and emotions,” Szeps tells SX. “Freud is also in real fucking pain with the cancer, so it’s very visceral. You’re drawn to the ideas and how clever and witty they are, and the way they take the piss out of each other and bring each other undone.”
Far from being didactic and biased, Hansell adds, the clash of Christianity and atheism at the heart of the play is genuinely enlightening (pardon the pun) and persuasive on both sides. “It’s interesting, and I’ve been kind of hesitant to reveal my own stripes on the subject, but it has certainly given me a lot of pause for thought,” he says. “Things I would have dismissed outright in the past, I’ve kind of gone, ‘I can see why it is of such nourishment to so many people’. Like Lewis says, religion is not just a fantasy for unthinking people. He was a smart man and he read a lot and it’s all tied into his literary prowess and reading of mythology and stuff like that. And you kind of go, yeah, the search for meaning makes sense.”
But whatever end of the religious spectrum, audiences members will be provoked, Hansell asserts. “There’s a story from the OffBroadway production of this couple who came in, and one was an atheist and one was a believer,” he tells SX. “At the end of the show they went and had dinner and they had swapped positions!”
[Pictured] Freud's Last Session ... Henry Szeps as Dr Sigmund Freud and Douglas Hansell as CS Lewis. Photo: Brian Geach
Freud’s Last Session, Theatre Royal until September 1. Bookings at www.freudslastsession.com.au