Just to make things clear, I’m writing a review of the Dutch play Freud, not the actual person. I think we can bicker all we want about whether if Freud was an asshole, or not as much of an asshole as you actually think, but one thing we can all agree on is that, especially after you watch the performance by ITA and Toneelhuis, Freud the play slaps.
Each time I pass by a Pathé in Amsterdam, barely paying attention to the monopoly of Disney movies and terrible seasonal Dutch movies, I wonder, where has the good mainstream entertainment gone? So far none of the Dutch people I met have recommended any Dutch releases, which is why I was so intrigued when given a ticket to a Dutch play that was adapted from the script of a seven hour movie. The original script was intended for the big picture but Sartre, the avid madman always trying to create a melange of philosophy and art, refused to alter his vision and never saw his script performed as he intended. In fact, though the script was adapted from the French philosopher’s writing, it would be impossible to deny that this play is anything less than Director Ivo van Hove’s masterfully crafted and performed vision.
For those who don’t know every minutious detail of Freud’s life and may one day have the chance to see this amazing play, here’s your SPOILER WARNING.
To start off with my only critique, there was a table full of plants, left alone to the side until one of the pots came crashing down to the floor. The whole time I was hoping for Freud to be scared out of his mind as he comes to terms with his biggest fear: a table full of ferns.
Instead, the play decides to focus on Freud’s contribution to the world of psychoanalysis, his quest to contradict those in power and be recognized as the Jew that slayed the daunting goliath of the mind. Minds who, in their ignorance and stupidity, led the world to subdue and eliminate the strength and pride that might have once been a part of his father’s character but now only left him as a shell of a man in the eyes of Freud.
The main character has a flawed view of a flawed world. He perceives his father as the ultimate cuck, his wife is second hand to his work. Everything starts to revolve more around about the omnipresence of sex. In order to develop his theories he ruthlessly applies them to himself. Almost all of his clients attempt to commit suicide, so you can imagine how effective the self treatment is.
There are three stages set in motion for the audience and for Freud’s psychoanalysis. Every time Freud comes up with a new discovery it is emphasized by the stage itself having a breakthrough as well. The stage decomposes in front of your eyes, turning the stage transitions into a spectacle, a work of art with duet dancing between man and machine, and recomposing as if the discovery shatters the scene itself.
A black box descends upon the stage, enclosing Freud and his star patient as they explore past trauma, dreams and a space devoid of social judgement. The stage’s intricate lightwork now shines on this intimate stronghold displaying a spotlight on Freud, a patient, and a couch. Throughout the play certain actors representative of the old school, the mentors who helped guide the way for Freud, act as shadows, sitting down and observing Freud’s every move. These shadows are covered up in the darkness surrounding the casing. Freud is left in uncharted territory. The actors are positioned similarly to myself and my father at the top of this article. If Freud were looking into his patient’s eyes while she talks about her deepest insecurities, her trauma and dreams would be like the entire judgement of society palpably visible and scrutinizing her every word. By having them oppose each other Freud wishes to act as an objective guide. At the end of the play, after oedipal raging and heartfelt confessions, they sit side by side looking intensely at each other. Then directly at you.
I can understand why the Anarchist theater group would be interested in performing Freud. A play that pits Freud as never blindly following the hierarchy of psychologists who wish that he merely continue along the road they paved as well as set the destination. I had no idea where the play was headed and I was surprised at how such a familiar story could still breathe life to concurrent themes and ideas. The portrayal of hate is bountiful and leaves you with an uneasy feeling in your stomach. Where is Freud treading new ground to provide relief from hate and when does it get overshadowed by his ego (not the Freudian Ego but the other, more douchey version)? Each moment isn’t a clear one or the other. There is no binary opposition, there is only lustful, vengeful, inquisitive and rebellious Freud.
The physical performance of some of the actors far exceeds the cutesy wireless waltz. The contortions embodied by those undergoing hypnosis are impossibly sustained for so long and with such vigor that you’re left squirming in your seat, caressing your leg hoping to God it’s not twisted in any way. The performance itself is quite meta as having imaginary illnesses, which Freud and his partners are perceived to be psychosomatic, also literally being imaginary within the context of the world outside the play. They are portrayed by actors who can switch to an upright walk at a moment’s notice, no hypnosis necessary.
Is hypnosis ever necessary? There is a scene where Freud employs this technique on a man who deems himself too dangerous for the outside world. Though an incredibly intense therapy session of hypnosis and bondage wrestling seemingly helps the patient be more confident in his body, Freud is still scarred. He leaves the room hoping to never touch these tools again, but what you ignore only comes back bigger than ever. Like a father that Freud constantly ignores and treats very flippantly, hoping that in his success and fame a new, more suiting father figure magically replaces his dad. The death of his father hits him hard; his vision, unrealistic though it was, will never be accomplished.
Goy, the word that pushes away the non-Jews, the non-survivors, also becomes the looming threat that simultaneously never goes away and escapes Freud’s fixed glance. Sartre and Freud share this tumultuous past with a world that abandoned their forefathers and at its worst persecuted and unflinchingly eliminated over six million Jews. Is it fair to think that a society with so much hatred for Freud’s ancestry and religion could also be a catalyst for his views of the oppressive societal norms that dictate one’s mind? His pursuit for a legacy that will never cease being relevant can be seen as a fierce opposition to a world that tried time and time again to erase his culture and community.
So, what has Freud left behind? When the curtains close over the stage and his piercing stare vanishes, are you able to get up from your seat? It took me a while to do so, and when I did it was to cheer for the actors, crew and director in a much deserved standing ovation. When I was finally able to put my emotions to words, talking through what I had watched with my fellow theater-goers, some persistent thoughts kept escaping from my subconscious: never blindly follow orders, don’t let hate blind you and don’t let antisemitism be ignored until it’s too late.