Theatre legend Sir Antony Sher talks to Rebecca Wallersteiner about his fascination with Sigmund Freud and starring as the ageing psychoanalyst in Terry Johnson’s new play, Hysteria.[divider]
Double Olivier Award winner Sir Antony Sher is certainly putting mind over matter for his latest role as Sigmund Freud. Hysteria, which is written and directed by Terry Johnson, as part of the Hampstead Theatre’s new autumn season, is set in Freud’s study in Hampstead, the psychoanalyst’s beloved last home, which is just a mile away from the theatre.
It imagines the fallout when two of the 20th Century’s most brilliant and original minds, Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali, collide. Sher, who plays the ageing Freud, will be reunited with David Horowitz with whom he worked in the critically acclaimed Bath Theatre Royal production – but the rest of the cast will be new.
I ask the 64-year-old actor if he’s an admirer of the famous Austrian- Jewish psychoanalyst? “In researching my role, I was tremendously impressed by what an extraordinary pioneer Freud was,” says Sher. “He was incredibly brave and complex with his research about how sexuality motivates us all – which at that time was completely uncharted territory. “In his way, Freud was as adventurous as an explorer in Africa setting out to explore the Dark Continent – but instead of mapping the Nile, he explored the Dark Continent in us all.”
Hysteria’s plot turns on a true life meeting between Freud and the Spanish artist Salvador Dali in 1938. This was the year Freud had fled Nazi- occupied Austria and settled in leafy Swiss Cottage. Aged 82, he hoped to spend the rest of his life in peace. But in the play, it is at this point that the mad surrealist Dali turns up after he discovers a skimpily-attired woman in Freud’s closet – and it becomes obvious that peace is not something Freud will get after all.
“In reality, the meeting between the two was fairly brief and unremarkable, although a beautiful little drawing that Dali executed of Freud on this day, still exists and is held at the Freud Museum,” says Sher.
However, in Johnson’s hilarious play, the meeting becomes a rollercoaster of emotions and farcical comedy. “The play explores Freud’s obsession with the unconscious mind and Dali’s with surrealism – but although both were original thinkers, they were like chalk and cheese,” he adds. “Dali and the surrealists worshipped Freud and believed that he was precisely what they were aiming to achieve – but sadly for them it was a somewhat one-sided attraction and this leads to much fun in the play.”
I ask the South African-born actor if it is difficult playing a genius cultural icon whose life and powers are ebbing away? “I like the angle Johnson takes with exploring Freud’s last year of life, dying of the cancer that was rapidly spreading throughout his body. “We see this great mind whose body is failing him and I am playing the vulnerability indicative of the general human condition,” he explains. The play explores deeper issues concerning identity, which will have particular resonance with Jewish members of the audience.
Like Freud and his family, Sher’s grandparents also fled persecution in Europe, leaving their shtetl in Lithuania in the 1890s, to escape the pogroms. They moved to South Africa, where Sher was born and spent his childhood. He arrived in London in the 1970s to attend drama school, aged 19 – but still returns to visit his family in Africa around once a year.
Acting has helped him to cope with his shyness. “I had been thinking of becoming an artist, but decided to go to drama school as acting took me out of myself,” he explains and goes on to tell me that he also enjoys painting and has held exhibitions of his work.
Has therapy helped Sher personally? “I have undergone psychotherapy for periods of my life and it has proved invaluable – particularly art therapy – but as an artist I have always enjoyed drawing. “During my childhood, I even thought of becoming a painter,” he says. He explains that art therapy involves creating an image and then discussing it with your therapist. “Dealing with the problems of your mind, as you would consult a doctor to sort out your physical problems can be extremely life- enhancing.”
• Hysteria runs from 5 September to 12 October at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage. Tickets: 020 7722 9301 or http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/