Freud’s Last Session is one of those plays which is founded on a supposed meeting of two historical people of opposing viewpoints. In this case the protagonists are Sigmund Freud and CS Lewis.
Freud considered religion a mass delusion and a group neurosis. CS Lewis was an atheist converted to devout Christianity, a brand of which permeated even his non-theological writings. His best known works are probably “The Chronicles of Narnia”. “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 says to Lewis.
Playwright Mark St. Germain sets the meeting in Freud’s London home at the start of World War II (Actually 3 September 1939 making this an anniversary production). The South African version, produced by Daphne Kuhn of the Auto & General Theatre on the Square, and directed with a very deft hand by Alan Swerdlow, the play that ran on off-Broadway for two years, is certainly entertaining South African audiences. Professor CS Lewis, the 40 year old Oxford don, is played by Antony Coleman, and he arrives late for the meeting because trains are being commandeered to take people, particularly children, out of London, while Sigmund Freud, a refugee from Hitler’s anti-semitism, is played by Graham Hopkins. Both give sterling performances, particularly Graham Hopkins who plays the 83 year old father of psychoanalysis, now dying, in great pain, of oral cancer. The prosthesis in his mouth rubs and makes Freud bleed when he talks although he admits that not talking would be more difficult for him. All round, the script fleshes Freud out more thoroughly than Lewis and it shows in the portrayals. It is Freud’s name in the title, Freud’s home in the set and Freud’s play in the theatre, although both characters have their moments of fear and flashbacks to more horrible times in their lives.
Denis Hutchinson designed the set, a book-lined study (supposedly a replica made by Freud’s daughter, Anna, of Freud’s Austrian study) and lighting and there are some excellent sound effects including planes flying low overhead and war sirens by Dean Pitman of Raintree.
The philosophical debate between people of faith and people of purely secular beliefs (or “The Question of God” as some phrase it) is always interesting. It always rightly questions the construct of a good God allowing bad things to happen to good people. Right and wrong. Evil and good. Freud asks if Poland should turn the other cheek? Lewis turns the tables on Freud when he says “The wish that God doesn’t exist can be just as powerful as the belief he does.” The script teases it out somewhat, adding the possibility of self-administered euthanasia by Freud together with the questions around Freud’s Jewish identity as slight complications to the plot. One neither expects, nor gets, resolution of the matter. They fight it out to a draw. The script is not unrelieved academic posturing, there is some delightful humour buried in amongst the more thought provoking stuff. One will not come away feeling as if there was an attempt to convert one to any particular way of thinking. One such gem is where Lewis uses his literary critical skills to point out that the Gospels can’t be works of fiction because they’re so poorly constructed as works of fiction.
The work is 80 minutes long, but feels shorter. The ideas simmer in the mind long after one leaves the theatre. It’s men, not God, not Lucifer, who created prisons, slavery, bombs. Man’s suffering is the fault of man “ says Lewis. Freud counters with “Is that your excuse for pain and suffering?” Science and religion, sex and authority all fade away as King George VI has the play’s last, ironic, word over the radio when he tells the British people that they will prevail over Germany “with God’s help”.
One of the performances, on 7 September 2017, is dedicated to raising funds for actor Robert Fridjohn who has had a stroke and needs the money for rehabilitation. You can still donate to the fund by contacting the Auto & General Theatre on the Square and getting their bank details to do so.
Freud’s Last Session plays at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until 17 September 2017. After that The Old Man & the Sea interpreted by Jenine Collocott (creator and director) and starring James Cairns and Tarry Bennet, will take to the boards.