Mark St Germain’s imagined encounter between Sigmund Freud and CS Lewis has atheist Freud confess something he’s not even told his daughter: his terminal cancer of the jaw means he wishes to end his own life. Lewis may be a strange choice of confidant “” what with his religiously informed abhorrence of suicide “” but Freud’s impulse belies a notable observation important to much of his work. It’s sometimes easier to tell one’s deepest anxieties to a relative stranger than to a lifelong friend or family member.
Freud’s Last Session holds to this premise, with these two twentieth century intellectuals undergoing a mutual psychotherapy session while also sparring about sex, g/God, joy and pain on the eve of WWII. St Germain’s script is primarily focused on the heady philosophy at hand, and while there is some sparky dialogue, the play seems largely restricted by its premise. The idea comes from Dr Armand M Nicholi, a Harvard professor, who taught a course for over twenty years comparing both men’s ideological stances, which then became a book called The Question of God.
So comes St Germain, who concots a rather lightweight device to orchestrate their fictional skirmish “” indeed SÃ©an Browne’s Lewis repeatedly asks, ‘Why have you invited me over?’. Their relationship moves quickly because the conceit requires it, and though both Julian Bird as Freud and Browne work hard to create identifying characteristics of these historical figures, the connection between them feels thin. Amidst the rebuttals are some clever jokes which demonstrate St Germain’s knowledge of his subjects, but there are a number of moments where it feels like these essential strangers would surely prefer to part ways rather than continue clashing over Christianity, especially when they resort to name-calling. Perhaps therefore the emotional peaks seem quite steep, rendering them a touch melodramatic.
Only the troubling indicators of a brewing war interrupt their arguments. It’s clever to set the encounter, which might otherwise read as a classroom debate, amidst such an ominous and weighty time (after all, Freud himself was a refugee). But while director Peter Darney does well to pace the conversation, some snags mean the interrupting national broadcasts and air raids lag a little, leaving Bird and Browne to lose a bit of steam. Brad Caleb Lee’s eye-catching design brings into the interior of Freud’s London office that external disquiet with an evocative mural floor painting, which also gestures to the foundations on which both men ground their arguments.
And so, this rendezvous may yield some insights about Lewis and Freud and how their influential ideas on life, death, and the afterlife weigh up. But what feels missing is an understanding of why this encounter ought to be staged and not just imagined, and what bond (even amongst near strangers) has been cemented.
Freud’s Last Session is on at King’s Head Theatre till 12th February. More info here.