Freud and CS Lewis tackle Religion – and more – on stage at Theatre on the Square

Graham Hopkins, Alan Swerdlow and Antony Coleman


Diane de Beer

Throw the names of actors Graham Hopkins and Antony Coleman into a hat and I pay attention.

There are also the play (Freud’s Last Session) and the director, Alan Swerdlow, that add weight. There’s no way the description “cerebral play with warmth” does this project justice though, it is one of those seasons you will have to take a chance on.

At worst you will have the acting talents of these two extraordinary actors – each in their own right. They have in fact never worked together on stage, only in TV’s Scandal, and Coleman remembers that they were fighting a court case in that particular session while Hopkins recalls the reams and reams of dialogue he had to memorise. “I had to devise a special method of pictograms to get it all down,” he says.

Freud’s Last Session which opens on Tuesday (August 22) at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, running until September 14, was imagined by Marc St Germain following the premise of a meeting between  legendary psychotherapist Dr. Sigmund Freud (Hopkins)  and the rising Oxford don C.S. Lewis (Coleman). He tellingly sets this particular tête–à–tête in London on the eve of World War 2.

The one is famous for his views on sex, the other for his religious beliefs (and the Narnia books, some of his life story captured in the play/film Shadowlands), and this will be much more than talking heads – and with these three artists involved, you’d better believe it.

As these two opinionated men argue about the existence of God, whether the belief in God is merely a childish fantasy, or a crucial element of leading a meaningful life, the BBC keeps interrupting with the latest bulletins on the impending war.

With the possibility of a war looming in the background and foremost in their minds, they might start out with religion, the conflict between science and religion, but their conversation veers to their parents, music, meaning of Hitler – and even the entertainment value of flatulence! It would have to have all that to keep us listening I suspect.

The whole affair is of course heightened because of the Hitler’s presence heavy on the horison, Freud being an 83-year-old Jewish refugee from Vienna and Lewis, a 40-year-old World War 1 veteran, both with their own set of worries.

For both actors, finding their particular persona was top of the agenda and Hopkins notes that there’s not much live footage on Freud, while for Coleman there’s obviously much more. But neither of these two actors would be inclined to go for mimicry, it’s simply finding a truth to the men they’re portraying. “It’s so skilfully written,” explains Hopkins, that their characters are revealed in the conversation.

“It’s what theatre does best,” says Swerdlow as he talks about the actors and the way they give life to the people they play. And in this case, it will be part of the enjoyment of the piece – to watch these two skillful artists at work on the same stage – and playing great men, so often larger than life.

For Hopkins the play deals with that age-old question of why we’re here? “It’s something all of us ask at some stage,” he says and there will be both squabbles and serious, thought-provoking debate.

At the time of our chat, the actors were enjoying their first outing together, both thrilled that they have a rapport with much laughter ensuing during rehearsals. Swerdlow is a director who allows his actors to find their way, especially with two as stage savvy as Hopkins and Coleman. While he worries about the play finding its people, he knows when it does, the audiences will stream in and discover the delights of this rich work.

This is the kind of theatre we don’t get to see that often; it’s quite wordy, its about topics that might blow a few minds, and many managements in these tough times aren’t able to take the risk.

Once in a while like in this instance, Daphne Kuhn allows herself this leap of faith. In the end, to get you to go and to pay attention (and win New York theatre awards), Freud’s Last Sessions has to be entertaining.

This trio (Swerdlow and his actors) are determined to showcase the best and prove a point.