You'd think that a play about Jung and Freud and the birth of psychoanalysis would surely prove riveting but Christopher Hampton's latest work is more a case of untapped potential rather than fully-fledged substance. It's not a failure by any means but it simply doesn't quite manage to create the sort of compelling drama that you might anticipate.
The excellent James Hazeldine was originally cast in the role of Sigmund Freud but sadly died during the play's opening days and the much younger Dominic Rowan (who also plays the decadent Otto Gross) gamely stepped into his role. It's an ill-fit though and without conviction in this pivotal part all seems somewhat unbalanced. Ralph Fiennes plays Carl Jung at the beginning of his eminent career. It's a time when Freud and he apparently share much common ground, the cracks that will eventually sever their relationship as yet only vaguely palpable.
As the play opens it is 1904 and Jung is working as a psychiatrist at the University of Zurich, whilst the older Freud is established in private practice in Vienna. Into their lives steps Sabina Spielrein (Jodhi May), a young Russian Jew who's been diagnosed with hysteria. Initially Jung's patient and later his lover, the articulate Spielrein becomes a catalyst in the search for the definitive ' talking cure' of the title as both Jung and Freud become emmeshed in the debate about sexuality and psychoanalysis.
May is impressive in her part, investing Spielrein with intelligence and humanity. Fiennes is, surprisingly, less effective, little sign of Jung's dynamism apparent. Tim Hatley's tiered, sliding set is certainly arresting but it's somewhat inimical to the sort of intimacy that would benefit the play's development. Articulate and undeniably interesting, Hampton's play is good in parts but not quite cohesive enough to fully engage.
The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton tells the story of the friendship between Freud and Jung, a friendship that was formed and eventually broken by Jung’s evolving relationship with Sabina Spielrein, one of Jung’s patients.
The play delves into the nature of sexuality, is it the force that governs our sub-conscious, which defines our mental well-being? Are all cases of hysteria and obsessional neurosis brought on by forgotten sexual memories that have been suppressed as Freud believed or are there also other psychic energies at play within the human sub-consciousness, as believed by Jung?
The play also examines the growing anti-semitism within Europe. Until Jung, Freud’s work in psychology had only been developed by Jewish practitioners, and as such was seen in a negative light by many in Europe. Jung, being a gentile, was possibly someone who could help overcome the prejudice that psychoanalysis was only a Jewish affair. Is this why Freud initially saw Jung as psychoanalysis’s redeemer and anointed crown prince?
In the play we see a troubled and strife-ridden Jung, who not only struggled with his own ethical dilemmas but also perceived through his work on “archaic residues” and “collective sub-consciousness” the terrible destructive forces about to break loose across Europe, covering the continent in a sea of blood.
It is Jung’s view on archaic residues, which plunged him into the world of mythology and the occult, seeking images that would cast light upon the inner workings of the sub-conscious that led to some of the farcical elements in the play. When Jung and Freud are confronting each other over their differences, books come flying out of Freud’s bookcase, caused by some uncanny psychic disturbance, which Jung predicted. I cringed in embarrassment at this ridiculous emblematic gesture. Also, when Freud faints because Jung challenges his authority, it appears clumsy and asinine. Was this meant to be a symbol of the death of Freud’s ego? Whatever it was meant to portray, it caused embarrassed rustling and subdued giggles from the audience.
Joshi May is brilliant as Sabrina Spielran, the young woman who is brought to Jung suffering from hysteria and who is cured by Jung’s use of Freud’s psychoanalysis, hence the name of the play “The Talking Cure”. Joshi May captures the inner strength of this initially disturbed individual. Even when she twists her body in pain recollecting memories of her childhood, one can sense the resilience and forcefulness of her personality. This quality of resilience that Joshi May so effectively captures enables one to understand why Jung should have become infatuated with Sabina’s captivating personality.
Ralph Fiennes gives a strong performance as Jung. He bubbles with energy and agitation, expressing the forcefulness of an intellect struggling to find the ideas with which to express its growing insights. One can sense his shame towards his wife to whom he was unfaithful and feel his pain as he foresees the coming strife across Europe.
The set is visually pleasing. The black shutters that open and close revealing different scenes, and the staircase that moves from one level to another connecting the actors from one scene to the next express the hidden inner workings of the sub-conscious. However, the casters squeaked as they slid the shutters backwards and forwards and the loose fittings of the shutter panels clattered as they rattled along their railings.
An interesting but at times pretentious play that is made delightful by the wonderful acting of Joshi May and Ralph Fiennes.
Production photos by Ivan Kyncl
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Disappointing play."PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, " Compelling – and properly haunting – portrait of Jung's adulterous, driven trainee." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Intriguing and informative." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Initial promise flags as Jung love loses its passion." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Intelligent and absorbing." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "..lack of depth in the play. I'm happy to watch it and happy to forget it."
External links to full reviews from popular press