Antony Sher returns to the spiritual home of ‘Hysteria’

Antony Sher in Hysteria

Antony Sher in Hysteria - Credit: CREDIT Photograph by Nobby Clark

The two-time Oliver Award winner delves into a combustive re-imagining of when Freud met Dali in Hampstead

When Terry Johnson began to write Hysteria in 1993, he struggled to find a way to structure its central meeting between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali. It was only when he visited Hampstead’s Freud Museum and saw the psychoanalyst’s former study and couch that he realised this was where it had to be set.

Twenty years on, the play is returning to its spiritual home. Hampstead Theatre’s revival not only hails the return of Johnson as director, but also one of the country’s finest actors as the 81-year-old Freud.

Sir Antony Sher excelled by all accounts when Hysteria was performed at the Theatre Royal Bath last year, his natural gravitas perfectly capturing one of the 20th century’s most ground-breaking minds. Sher too is glad the play has returned to north London.

“It sort of gives me a thrill,” he says, as we sit down in one of the Hampstead Theatre dressing rooms. He leans back in his chair slowly, purposefully, as if in the Freudian hot seat itself. “It’s a bit like performing Shakespeare at Stratford.”


The play’s brilliance, he continues, is in imagining how Freud’s obsession with the unconscious might collide with Dali’s world of surrealism. “And the perfect place for that to occur of course is Freud’s study.”

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The meeting between these two cultural stalwarts is based upon a real life incident in 1938, where a young Dali visited Freud at his home in Maresfield Gardens a year before the Austrian’s death.

In truth, the meeting was brief and quiet – as Dali noted, little was said, but “we devoured each other with our eyes”. In Johnson’s reimagining however, the connection is combustive and triggered by the fictional appearance of a woman who forces Freud to reconsider some of his oldest theories.

“It’s a terrific part,” says Sher. “Freud is one of my heroes, he was so brave, such a pioneer, exploring the dark continent of the mind at a time when it was not thought proper to explore issues like sexuality. So it was just terrific researching him and then leaving all that behind to play the part Terry Johnson has actually written, which is what you must do.”

He speaks highly of Johnson and compares the writing to that of Shakespeare’s history plays, in the sense that historical accuracy comes a clear second to artistic licence. Considering some of Sher’s most celebrated roles are Shakespearean protagonists like Richard III, he believes there is in fact a great overlap of themes between the two forward-thinking philosophers.

“Shakespeare’s understanding of our psychology is incredible and can be explained so perfectly in Freudian terms. There is one character I played recently, Leontes, in A Winter’s Tale, where the character suffers wildy irrational jealousy, believing his wife to be unfaithful. Researching that role, I discovered a condition called morbid jealousy that point by point matches what Shakespeare wrote. It was very liberating to find that even though Shakespeare didn’t call it morbid jealousy, he knew it down to the last detail just by studying mankind.”

Playing such a deep thinker seems natural to Sher and one wonders what might have been if he and Freud were to have ever met. Sher was born to a South African Jewish family, before eventually. like Freud, settling in England. He is clearly enthralled by both Freud and Dali and enthusiastically shows me a folder of his research for the part, which include the painter’s distinctly hazy sketches of Freud on display at the Freud Museum.

Revealing that he personally underwent psychotherapy – a “lower, less scientific” level to psycohanalysis – for years, Sher believes everyone, even Freud, can benefit from self-analysis. Understandably, he is reserved about going into specifics, but admits much is revealed in his autobiography.

“It was about all sorts of issues, a hundred different things that probably a lot of us have. I found it helpful to get it sorted out though and at the very least become aware of them.”

On or off the analyst’s counch there is always a part to play for Sher.

n Terry Johnson’s Hysteria is at Hampstead Theatre from September 5 to October 12. For information and tickets, visit