January 8, 2003: Hampton, The Talking Cure

National Theatre, Cottlesloe. Directed by Howard Davies. With Ralph Fiennes as Carl Yung; Jodhi May as Sabina Spielrein; and James Hazeldine listed in the program as Freud, but Hazeldine has recently died and a program insert indicates that Dominic Rowan, who plays Otto Gross, is now also playing Freud.

An absorbing play, with some very fine acting in it, about the quarrel between Freud and his early disciple Jung that ended up sending them on such different paths. Hampton gives the Yung role the centrality — and he is played by the star actor Ralph Fiennes (say “Rafe Fines” — or “Ralph,” as my colleague Peter Thomson tells me to say, unless I prefer the more socially snobbish, condescendingly familiar “Rafe”). Fiennes is an intense, concentrated actor who shows us the increasingly unsettled Jung, heading, at the end of the play — as his patient, very understanding wife Emma fears — toward a nervous breakdown. Although Freud hovers noticeably in the background as the controlling superego of the play, Yung is the ego, the center, and his developing love relationship with his present then former patient Sabina Spielrein is the central action of the play. It is a fairly coherent action, overall, but Hampton seems to find himself intermit­tently interested in the gathering storm clouds of World War II: the tortured Jung has a dream about a flood that begins in the Baltic and inundates all of Europe; it is a flood of blood. Earlier, in the last scene of Act I, we see Sabina befriend a young girl and then summarily be shot dead by a soldier in a Nazi uniform. It strikes us as a flash-forward, ominous in its seeming prediction of what is to come in Act II, but it turns out only to have been a way to end Act I with a bang (literally so).

This is one of various ways of giving an audience foreknowledge, but here it seems gratuitous and distracting. And it reveals a weakness in dramatic struc­ture. The play is too long to be performed without an interval, but it tends toward the episodic and, after the shooting scene that ends Act II, it has a certain feeling of the anti-climactic. Finally, it doesn’t matter, for present purposes, whether Sabina was murdered by the Nazis in 1942. The bulk of the play, as the scene descriptions in the program make clear, covers the period 1904-05 to 1913 and is set mostly in Zürich. And the real focus lies, not in the cataclysm that will occur in 1914 and then again in 1939, but on the tension Carl Jung experiences between his sense of his mission as a physician to the mentally and emotionally ill and his awakening perception of himself as a man with a body and with bodily needs and desires. This tension is never resolved in the play, and one senses Hampton’s belief that it can never be resolved and that it is precisely this that makes Jung human and appealing to us. Fiennes’s performance certainly makes him appealing in this way.

And Jodhi May’s wonderful performance as the hysterical Sabina dealing with the terrible aftermath of her treatment at the hands of a pathologically brutal and manipulative father comprises the epicenter of the play. She is a very talented, appealing actress who is able to delineate the remarkable arc of Sabina’s recovery — hence the title of the play — and subsequent accomplishments as a university student and physician on the model of her mentor and lover with the fullness and clarity that are largely responsible for the success of the play.

It may have been the case that Hampton was persuaded against his better judgment to include the scene of Sabina’s murder by the German soldier. I would like to think so. In any case, the foreknowledge that Sabina is doomed to an untimely death does nothing for our understanding of how the psychothera­peutic process of talking things out was the proof of the validity and usefulness of Freud’s, and then Jung’s, theories of curing emotional disorders. Perhaps the murder scene is there partly to situate us as a very long way off from the form­ative events occurring in pre-World War I Zürich and Vienna. We surely are far distant from those events and from their second coming in 1939-45. But we are very close to our own troubled times, and to an incipient war in Iraq, and still just this side of the cataclysm of our own time that occurred just sixteen months ago, on September 11, 2001. And we now live in an age when a huge counter-reaction against Freud and his ideas has stepped in in place of the adulation and imitation that went on for so many years in the last century.

In short, the world in which Hampton is writing his account of the breakup of Freud and Jung and of the simultaneous development of the talking cure is one that is only partly, and fitfully, alluded to, and then only by analogy, in his play. Of course, a dramatist can’t be expected to be simultaneously an historian and a philosopher; but I have come away from The Talking Cure sensing a certain vagueness, or haziness, about the way it identifies its true subject and the way it places itself in a perspective that should be clear enough for us to be able to grasp it, and grasp what it is trying to tell us about ourselves.

A note on Freudian schema in the play: because the Freudian triad of superego, ego, and id sort out so clearly in the play when attached to specific characters — superego equals Freud; ego equals Jung; id equals Otto Gross — it seems likely that Hampton’s intention was to adopt this schema as a way of complexifying Jung’s personality. Otto Gross, the only student who comes into Jung’s life at a crucial moment (as I recall), when Jung is battling with himself over whether to give way to his urge to take Sabina as his mistress, is a trans­parent representation of the untrammeled urge to pleasure. The dramatic significance of this three-part division is that it projects Jung’s personality into the world he lives in — not in any real expressionistic way, but simply as a means of showing how aspects of the personality can translate into complex combinations of need and desire, control and mastery, pleasure and pleasure-seeking and deferral of pleasure or denial of pleasure for the sake of other (higher?) goods. I don’t think Hampton rams this scheme down our throats; I was hardly conscious of it during the performance and worked it out consciously only afterwards.

Now, if only there had not been that intrusive episode with the Nazi soldier. Am I missing something?



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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