Review: FREUD’S LAST SESSION, by Mark St. Germain, at King’s Head Theatre

Freud and C. S. Lewis meet and argue about God in the European debut of Mark St. Germain’s delectably brainy play.

BWW Review: FREUD'S LAST SESSION, King's Head Theatre
Photo Credit: Alex Brenner

Great minds meet at symposiums, state dinners, literary circles, in the theatre. They get together and discuss their theories, arguing and tearing each other apart in dramatic fashion. What happens when two of the most famous men of their time clash in a small Hampstead office right when the Second World War is about to explode?

When C. S. Lewis enters the ageing Sigmund Freud‘s study, he thinks he’ll have to defend his choice of slandering the father of psychoanalysis in his latest book. But Freud isn’t interested in that, he’s heard of the image his colleague painted and isn’t too bothered in his old age and failing health. What irks him is the fact that Lewis has, out of the blue and totally unexpectedly, gone from being a fervent atheist like himself to being a pious Christian man. Unacceptable, according to him.

Mark St. Germain‘s play Freud’s Last Session was an Off-Broadway hit about a decade ago and it’s now getting its long-awaited European premiere at the King’s Head Theatre directed by Peter Darney. Doctor Julian Bird (a real life psychiatrist turned actor in the early noughties, there probably isn’t a better role for him) and Séan Browne are the pugnacious peers. Factually, nothing really happens in the show but for a great battle of wit on theology and philosophy. It’s delectably brainy.

In reality, the two never met and the source material for St Germain’s text is an equally thought-provoking book by professor Armand Nicholi, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. That title is all it takes to sum up the play.

With their positions being diametrically opposed and often brought up in related discussions, it’s a joy to see their spirits in the same room. They spar relentlessly, interrupted only by Freud feverishly turning the radio on to check if there are any reports of the impending declaration of war, the occasional military aircraft flying overhead, and phone calls to and from his daughter Anna.

Brawn is a tall and proud Lewis, towering over Bird’s Freud with his tinny Germanic accent and hobbling frame. They hit the other’s views, finding every weak spot, wounding their pride and patching it up only to attack again. Lewis is smug and slightly haughty with faith, whereas Freud is weary with cynicism. They (and therefore their core ideas) both contradict and justify themselves constantly, shaping and adapting theories to suit their interests and endgames.

The threat of war becomes fertile ground to debate whether God is actually good. Hitler’s spirituality and past as an altar boy also come into question as Lewis brings up his God’s greater plan and Freud points out the injustice and hypocrisy of Nazi cruelty. Inflammatory statements are made and the argument rages on.

It’s a stimulating show, one that will challenge the audience to bring their own beliefs to the table and see them destroyed and rebuilt on stage. It’s intellectually tense and truly well-written in its investigation of the two men and their ideologies. Whether people agree with one or the other, it’s quite the cerebral night out.

Freud’s Last Session runs at the King’s Head until 12 February.

Review by Cindy Marcolina for available here.