BERGGASSE 19 – THE APARTMENTS OF SIGMUND FREUD was designed for the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival and had a sell-out season there. A large-scale spectacular work for two actors – Brian Lipson and Pamela Rabe. Early versions of the work were also performed at two Conferences of the Royal Australian and New Zealand Congress of Psychiatrists biennial meetings.
A Review of BERGASSE 19 – THE APARTMENTS OF SIGMUND FREUD by Alison Croggan for her blog Theatre Notes –
Brian Lipson’s marvellous conceit, Berggasse 19 – The Apartments of Sigmund Freud, couldn’t come from a more different place than Richard Maxwell. Here all is artifice and trickery, starting with the set, co-designed by Lipson and Hugh Wayland, which must be the most intricate I’ve seen outside puppetry.
The play is a riff on the psychoanalysis of Freud, drawing especially from The Interpretation of Dreams and (surely) Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Berggasse 19 is the Vienna apartment where Freud lived until the rise of Fascism made him flee to London with his family.
The set is a cross section of the hallway: we see a bourgeois Viennese apartment from the early 1900s, with photographs on the walls, a pot plant, a dog asleep in front of a heater. To the right is the front porch, to the left the toilet. Underneath the floor is the cellar, the repository of the unconscious, full of forgotten junk: dolls, rocking horses, skeletons.
The endlessly ingenious set is as much as performer as the two actors, Lipson and Pamela Rabe. It is a kind of memory machine, a dreamlike representation of Freud himself, whose only other concrete appearance is as a dummy sitting on the toilet and reading a newspaper in a cloud of cigar smoke. The play is set in no particular time but, like memory itself, flashes back and forth from one time to another, and the set changes accordingly – the plant shoots neurotically up and down, photographs appear and vanish. Only the dog (a large stuffed puppet which the actors manipulate) slumbers unchangingly through everything, forcing the actors to step over him on the narrow stage.
The play mainly concerns itself with the women in Freud’s life – his wife Martha, his sister in law Minna Bernays, with whom he is said to have had an affair, his daughter Anna, his analysand Emma Eckstein, who later herself became a psychoanalyst, Sabina Spielrein, another patient who became an analyst and who introduced psychonalysis to Russia – though there are guest appearances by Jung and the Kosher butcher who lives next door. All the characters are played interchangably by the two actors with no attention to gender, with some very snappy costume changes; sometimes the same character can be played by the two actors in the space of half a minute. Sometimes it is like a surreal version of Hinge and Brackett.
The text itself plays constantly on linguistic slippage, and is consequently full of appalling puns, small collisions of linguistic and theatrical realities, which are assembled and disassembled at an increasingly frenetic rate. When the actors ring the door bell, they make the appropriate noise – “brrring bring!” – to which the other character says, “bring what?” The initial conceit, which we accept – that the actor makes the noise of the bell – is immediately shattered by the other actor. This mantling and dismantling becomes more extreme as the shows continues; in the end, even the costume changes occur before us on stage.
However, underneath the linguistic and theatrical glitter move darker shadows, which become more insistent as the show progresses; the unconscious is, after all, a gruesome place. There is an eerily beautiful monologue by Anna Freud (Pamela Rabe) speaking as an illuminated face from a mirror while her bisected body – her upper body simply cut off, so we can see the bones and flesh of her thighs – sits primly on half a chair beneath her. The monologue is pre-recorded, exaggerating the dislocation, while the live face in the mirror creates a kind of counterpoint of expression to the words. And the play finishes with a scene between the new Aryan occupants of the house, now its Semitic occupants have fled.
The complexity of the show, and of the ideas behind it, didn’t stop my 17-year-old son – who asked nervously beforehand what psychoanalysis was – from hugely enjoying it. As much as anything, its charm lies in the ebullient theatricality of the two performers and the (one assumes, very necessary) sharpness of the direction. Like the New York City Players, I’m not sure that I’ve seen anything like it. I would love to see it again, if only to pick up on what I missed the first time.
Monday, October 24, 2005
MIAF: Berggasse 19
Alison’s Festival Diary #6 Berggasse 19 – The Apartments of Sigmund Freud, written and designed by Brian Lipson, directed by Susie Dee, co-designed by Hugh Wayland, with Brian Lipson and Pamela Rabe, Grant Street Theatre.
At home with Sigmund Freud
A new play explores the fascinating home life of Freud, writes Robin Usher.
Wars began and ended, revolutions erupted and empires fell but nothing disrupted the Vienna household of Sigmund Freud, where the same routines were scrupulously followed for 47 years.
During that time, from 1891 to 1938, Freud was developing the blueprint for the development of human consciousness that remains influential even today.
“There were enormous upheavals all over Europe but Freud’s routine remained constant – his meals were all taken at the same times and his walks followed the same pattern,” says the writer and actor, Brian Lipson.
“I’m fascinated by that dichotomy. Nothing changed in the flat, while outside violent change was everywhere,” he says. “Even during the rise of the Nazis, this extraordinarily bourgeois existence continued at the apartment.”
The result of Lipson’s fascination is Berggasse 19 – The Apartments of Sigmund Freud, which premieres in the Melbourne Festival next Friday, October 14.
Those steadfast domestic rhythms were finally destroyed in 1938 when Freud fled to London to escape the Nazis. One of the coincidences that intrigues Lipson is that both Freud and Hitler were writing their revolutionary works within half a kilometre of each other.
“Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in Vienna and, like Freud, he regarded (the Alpine resort of) Berchtesgaden as his spiritual home,” he says.
Lipson will act in the show alongside Pamela Rabe, who will be making what could be her last Melbourne appearance for some time before joining the Sydney Theatre Company’s ensemble for the next two years.
Both actors play many roles as Lipson explores some of the people who came under Freud’s spell. “They all had their lives turned upside down after they met him. Sometimes that was for the worse, but not always.”
This is the second time that Lipson has explored the life of a 19th-century genius. His one-man show A Large Attendance in the Antechamber won two Green Room awards and has been performed in New York and other centres in the US.
It was about Sir Francis Galton, who pioneered eugenics, the attempt to improve the human race through selective breeding.
After a Melbourne performance, Lipson was approached by the head of psychiatry at Melbourne University, Professor Sidney Bloch, about writing a play about Freud.
“I only knew a bit about him at that stage,” Lipson says. “Then the idea for a set came into my head – a cross-section of his apartment – and I was able to work from the design outwards.”
The idea was to perform the play at last May’s psychiatric congress in Sydney but only about half the project was ready. “We provided a teaser, with about half the show,” says Rabe.
This resulted in Lipson developing another draft, leaving out what he now knew did not work. “It has had a long development period marked by periods of panic,” he says. “The rehearsal period has been very condensed.”
Part of his research was to read Freud’s Women by Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester, which led him to the conclusion that Freud was unique among 19th-century thinkers in that a significant number of his followers were women.
“I don’t agree that Freud was anti-woman or put back the development of feminism,” he says. “I was struck by how many women really loved him and many were empowered by him, not least (his daughter) Anna.”
Lipson believes the root of Freud’s theories is “an extraordinarily simplistic” idea – that humans are never anything other than an animal with desires for food, sex and power over others.
“He was so basic and elemental. But some of his ideas are still shocking. The concept of childhood sexuality is difficult to assimilate into normal philosophy because it’s so scary,” he says. “That’s why Freud was vilified so much.”
He says his interest in sex and death fits in with an era that saw the slaughter of World War I, the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires and the redrawing of the map in central Europe.
But he admits that Freud remains a mystery to him. “He was this weird combination of clever and stupid, empathetic and vicious, and bold and hesitant,” he says. “But there is no doubting that he was a brilliant writer. Writing a play about him is like putting words into Shakespeare’s mouth.”
Lipson first approached Rabe about the project when they were both in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Dinner in August last year.
He wasn’t even certain that he should appear in it because he wanted to concentrate on the women. “But (the director) Susie Dee insisted that I had to be in it,” he says.
The show has sold out its Melbourne Festival dates, but both Lipson and Rabe are confident about staging a return season at some time in the future.
“I will get holidays at the STC,” Rabe says. She is joining the Actors Company in Sydney along with John Gaden, Dan Spielman, Marco Chiappi, Deborah Mailman and seven others.
“I was honoured to be invited,” she says. “I like to think that working with the same group of people over a period of time will result in a better result. It’s an exciting experiment.”
But she says that elements of the project are not far removed from Berggasse 19. The STC’s associate director, Tom Wright, is writing a play specifically for the actors in the company that will be directed by Barrie Kosky.
Lipson says the idea of time is important in Berggasse 19. Because nothing changed in the apartment, the action takes place at the same time and day of the week, but the years can change instantly.
“The action expands outwards from a central point in 1900, when The Interpretation of Dreams was published.”
Lipson originally trained as a theatre designer in London before joining some of England’s most important experimental theatre companies in the ’70s and ’80s, such as the Cockpit and Lindsay Kemp. He contributed to some collaborative theatre projects as a writer before one of his works, The Suburbs of Hell, ended in disaster.
“It was in Thatcher’s England and we had a tour lined up but suddenly three of the theatres we were going to closed down,” he says. “But the grant from the Arts Council had already been spent and we couldn’t recoup it from box office when the council demanded that it be refunded.”
This forced him to leave experimental companies for better-paid jobs in the theatre. It took eight years to repay the money.
He and his wife, who is Australian, left England seven years ago because of illness in her family. He has found Melbourne an ideal home, where he is kept busy acting, teaching (at the Victorian College of the Arts), writing and directing.
“Melbourne reminded me of London when I was growing up when I first arrived,” he says. “But even if all the quaintness is vanishing fast I’ve found it to be a generous and open-hearted place.”
Berggasse 19 – The Apartments of Sigmund Freud is at the VCA’s Grant Street Theatre from Friday October 14-23.
Photos by brianlipsonantechamber.weebly.com and Pinch Hawkes