Almeida Theatre, London N1

Opened 29 October, 2009


“We murder to dissect,” wrote Wordsworth, referring to excessive study killing our appreciation of the wonders of nature. And what, in its way, is psychoanalysis but an intense study of personality that stifles individual quiddities? And how much more stifling might that be when superimposed on a parent/child relationship? Nicholas Wright’s 1988 play (receiving its first revival in a scrupulous production by Thea Sharrock) centres on one of the pioneers of child psychiatry, Melanie Klein, whose professional preoccupations have generated a complex rivalry with her daughter (also an analyst and one of Klein’s fiercest critics) and may have led her son to take his own life in 1934. Much of the play’s psychodrama turns on facts and interpretations regarding Hans Klein’s final hours.
Claire Higgins’ brilliance at portraying torrents of emotion is matched by her astuteness in suppressing them. Her Mrs Klein is all about control, in the senses both of composure and of dominating a situation, until those moments when she loses it. Yet these are never the points when she is most overtly goaded by her daughter Melitta (who is revealed to be the Dr Schmideberg about whom Klein has been so vitriolic before her arrival) nor more discreetly manipulated by newly arrived colleague Paula Heimann, who seems to have her sights set on supplanting Melitta as Klein’s "daughter". Nicola Walker as Paula grows during the evening from a position of ingenuousness to one of knowledge, analytic adroitness and even a control of her own. Zoë Waites’ Melitta soon abandons her glacially smiling putdowns of Paula and, on her mother’s unexpected return home, gets stuck into tussling with her both personally and professionally.
Wright’s play is clever, amusing and poignant sometimes all at once. However, I cannot rid myself of a suspicion that it is inextricably middle-class. Just as Klein and, later, Freud himself settled in Hampstead, so there feels to be a class undercurrent to assumptions about the psychoanalytically literate audience, who can appreciate gags such as Klein using a three-drawer filing cabinet for subjects she classifies as “ego”, “superego” and “id”. Despite the rise in estimates of the number of us who suffer from mental illness at one time or another, it is still often seen as something of a luxury to be able to afford to have such problems.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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