Review of Blank Space Theatre’s play, “Freud’s Last Session”

Title of Production: Freud’s Last Session

(Part of Esplanade’s The Studios series)

Theatre Company: Blank Space Theatre

Date of performance: 14 April 2012

Performance Venue: Esplanade Theatre Studio

The premise of the play was philosophically tantalizing. On a morning in September 1939, against the backdrop of England entering World War II, Sigmund Freud, atheist and psychoanalyst, meets C.S. Lewis, devout Christian convert and young professor of Oxford. The two are propelled into a dialectical but imagined inquiry about the existence of God, amongst having a lively discussion on suffering, war, Jesus Christ, evil, and sex. The play, written by Mark St. Germain and based loosely on “The Question of God” by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr, is an uncommon off-Broadway piece. In the words of Germain himself, the play is less about the two men than about giving the audience an opportunity to think through the major questions in life.

The two iconic men did bring into the play the very glorification of civil discourse through their intensely heated debate. Though on diametrically opposite points from the religious standpoint, their very humanness in some flawed arguments, resentment against their fathers, and recoiling at the impending war, showed that they were on more common ground than they thought. And such was one of the questions, among others, that Germain probably wanted to tackle: Are we more similar than we think, even though we pierce each other with words on the self-evident truths we claim to present? Does civil discourse and subsequent social intercourse help to narrow the otherwise non miscibility between atheists and theists? And does death, the common denominator for all men, truly terrify us all?

Well directed (Samantha Scott-Blackhall from Doubt, Das Experiment), well acted, and well written, the play provided us with fodder for thought about the existence of God and ultimate meaning of life, rather than profundity. The cranky, ageing Freud suffering from terminal mouth cancer was played by Matt Grey, down to Austrian accent and difficult gait. The exuberant young professor Lewis was deftly handled by Daniel York. Through the fluent and almost rhythmic delivery of crisp dialogue on the back-and-forth’s for various issues,  the actors brought much vibrancy into an otherwise overly speechifying piece. Matt Grey is to be commended for his portrayal of Freud who had a very cynical sense of humour even in the twilight of his years, and just two weeks before he took his own life. The stage directions were clever; throughout the discourse Freud had not sat on his famous “couch”, but eventually having gotten into a coughing fit from his medieval mouth prosthesis, he had to lie down on it, signifying his open vulnerability from the illness.

The dialogues were stinging with mordant wit and yet pregnant with deeper subtexts. Some of the more memorable quotes (paraphrased) here:-

Freud: “The village atheist was an insurance agent. He asked the local pastor if he would make a sick call. The atheist’s family was astonished; he was on his deathbed, they couldn’t believe he had the strength to speak with the pastor of all people. All day the two men quarreled, then all night, until finally, at dawn, the weary pastor stumbled from the house. The villager had died, still an atheist. But the pastor was fully insured.”

Lewis: “I had come to the conclusion that Christ was either a lunatic, sham, or the Son of God… and not just a great teacher.”

Freud: “I don’t claim Christ to be a great teacher. He failed at teaching as totally as he did at divinity, His teachings are naive and destructive… Which of Christ’s ‘teachings’ are even realistic? Love our neighbor as ourselves? It’s a foolish impossibility! Turn the other cheek? Should Poland turn the other cheek to Hitler? Should they love their neighbors as German tanks crush their homes? Or maybe they should follow Christ’s example and martyr themselves, since the meek will inherit the earth. Of course they will, they’ll be buried beneath it!

Freud: “What people say is less important than what they cannot.

Freud: “It was a joke to think that a great intellectual [like me] was saved by a slow-witted idiot.” Lewis: “And who caused this joke?

Lewis: “it was foolish of us, really, to think that we could solve these grand problems in an hour wasn’t it!” Freud:  “yes… but the only thing more foolish would be to not try”.

I felt that Freud was clearly the star of the written script, even though  the book on which it was based clearly favoured C.S. Lewis. However Lewis in the play did a good job of uncovering some of the contradictions in Freud’s life, such as why he was so terrified at the sound of an air raid siren, when he had informed Lewis he was arranging to commit suicide soon.

In relation to the set, the audience caught glimpses of the homely and cosy English study of Freud’s created by set designer Wong Chee Wai, even before the play started. His attention to detail made for a delightful watch. I took notice of the chess board, the “garden” outside of Freud’s study, and the ceiling trim of the room. The sound designer and music composer, Darren Ng Tzer Huei, did an equally great job as 1939 air raid sirens, announcements, rainstorms, and King George VI’s speech reverberated throughout the theatre studio.

Overall, a superb production. One of the best I have seen in local theatre, and one of the plays which affected me personally. And although one may find Freud and Lewis’ open-ended stalemate to be very wanting in terms of some closure on the bigger issues, you must admit that being drawn into an imaginary morning between two heavyweight thinkers is thoroughly enjoyable.

I knew before I watched the play that the question of God would not be answerable in one hour and twenty minutes. But I am thankful that Blank Space Theatre filled one of the voids of straight-talking on religious issues in theatre, inadvertently promoting the art of civil discourse.

Freud’s Last Session by Blank Space Theatre played at the Esplanade Theatre Studio in Singapore from 11 – 15 April 2012, and was part of Esplanade’s The Studios series.

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