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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Theatre review: Freud’s Last Session is a repetitive debate

Since Pacific Theatre promised a battle between a staunch atheist and a religious apologetic in Freud’s Last Session, I thought it best to bring an ordained minister with me.

Mark St. Germain’s Freud’s Last Session is a fictional meeting between author C. S. Lewis and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, set at the time England prepares to enter World War II. Assuming he has been summoned to meet with Freud because he mocked his book “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, Lewis soon discovers though that Freud is looking for a debate, one that takes on some urgency as Freud is suffering from mouth cancer and is planning on taking his life through a doctor-assisted suicide.

“I have no fear of death and no patience for propaganda” Freud says early on and the two begin to debate each other covering such topics as the existence of Christ; was he a real person and if he was, was he a fraud, a teacher, a lunatic or the son of God? As they argue, the war breaks out and the two interrupt their debate with the latest news from the Prime Minster and the King of England.

Pacific Theatre Artistic Director Ron Reed is once again transformed as the seemingly resolute Freud, finding the lows, the highs, and the humour of this intellectual man. Evan Frayne is sweetly openhearted and devout as the young writer. Very late in the 65-minute play, Freud is overcome by pain because of his cancer and the play suddenly becomes very affecting because of the human connection generated from his suffering.

As moving as that scene is though, it also highlights the problems with the rest of the script. Often the men sit in chairs debating and when they get passionate they stand and face each other. Director Morris Ertman understandably has a real challenge in making this meeting of minds and ideologies engaging theatre, and that is made even more difficult as it is mostly about ideas, and not human connection.

Carolyn Rapanos’ set features large ‘stone’ angle wings that jut into the playing area without apparent purpose, with various chairs and couches strewn about an unfinished floor. Freud’s office is improbably crowded with knickknacks and religious statues.

I asked my minister friend what he thought about the experience: “It’s too simplistic, abstract and repetitive to be that interesting. I also did not like that ghost dog (a recording of Freud’s barking dog is played when Lewis enters). Why did it bark at the beginning, but not during the air raid siren?”  He was also surprised the production used an actor’s recreation and not the actual recordings of British Prime Minster Chamberlain and King George.

Despite versed in the complexities of religious debate, my minister friend was not engaged. So, what about those of us who are not so up on religion? The dialogue between the two men boils down to “yes, there is a God” and “no, there isn’t”, and even with the moment of connection brought on by Freud’s suffering, the play is mostly that repetitive debate.

The actors are engaging, with Ron Reed particularly fascinating to watch, but the script is trying.

Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Morris Ertman. A Pacific Theatre production. On stage at Pacific Theatre (1140 West 12 Avenue, Vancouver) until May 30. Visit for tickets and information.

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