A scrupulous performance from a movingly muted Ralph Fiennes can’t heal what is ailing “The Talking Cure,” the long-aborning new play from Christopher Hampton that has arrived in an overwrought Howard Davies production that doesn’t show much faith in the script. Then again, so sketchy is Hampton’s imagining of that defining period early in the last century in the life and work of Carl Jung (Fiennes) that you sort of understand Davies’ need to submerge the text in a cavernous Tim Hatley set more appropriate for, say, “Titanic,” and an original score (by Dominic Muldowney) whose faux-Bernard Herrmannisms threaten to make of Jung’s largely unspoken torment a stage equivalent of the movie “Scream.”
To be sure, there are cries aplenty in the play, both the audience-grabbing ones of the hysterical Sabina Spielrein (Jodhi May), Jung’s patient-turned-lover, and the slow, silent scream emitted over the years by the self-denying Jung, who manages to churn out countless children via wife Emma (a commendably crisp Nancy Carroll) at vast psychic cost to himself. But between a first-act curtain that is crudely melodramatic and an aural soundscape that bookends virtually every scene with either an unidentified wail or some heavy breathing (if this were a film, it would have to be directed by Adrian Lyne), “Talking Cure” sometimes seems to have been staged by Spielrein herself, the production’s own hysteria all but eclipsing the real and rending antagonisms on view.
The show opened to the press a month late after five weeks in the National rep, during which time company member James Hazeldine — a sterling presence in at least three Davies stagings of late, including “All My Sons” — pulled out of the crucial supporting part of Freud and soon thereafter died. When two replacements (Bill Paterson and John Carlisle) then opted out of the play within days of having been named, the role fell to understudy Dominic Rowan, a game performer who is quite simply miscast.
Does that matter? Yes and no. On the one hand, Freud doesn’t even appear until 40 minutes into the first act, only to re-emerge now and again as the father figure, in career terms, whom the errant (and decades-younger) Jung must react against. But a thick beard can’t disguise the youth and lack of authority projected by Rowan, who is far happier inhabiting his original role as the multiply addicted polygamist Otto Gross than he is playing the psychoanalytic elder statesman who pioneered an understanding of what people are vs. Jung’s interest in what humankind could become. (Among the funnier exchanges in the play is the shift from Jung’s term, “psychanalysis,” to Freud’s preferred word, “psychoanalysis,” an added syllable that is greeted by Jung with the appropriate remark, “Oh.”)
The abiding thrust of “The Talking Cure” — the title surfaces early on as a synonym for the therapeutic process revolutionized by Jung — is the cut and thrust between Jung, the reined-in doctor, and Spielrein, his dangerously emotive patient, a damaged Russian Jew who went on herself to become a noted psychoanalyst before being executed by the Germans in 1942. The arc of their rapport is a cleverly effected about-face in terms of confidence and control that finds the initially cool, self-possessed Jung by play’s end jittery and withdrawn, obsessed by notions of apocalypse that, Hampton rather patly makes plain, the 20th century would go on to deliver. And yet, just when you have grasped the “physician, heal thyself” theme, the play belabors the point not once but twice, while handing an angry Jung the rather unlikely line “The rest is silence” for those theatergoers who may have missed Fiennes’ Hamlet some years ago.
Perhaps a film of the same material might flesh out the various shifting dynamics that operate by shorthand here, sex providing merely the most overt of several divisive issues that come between Jung and Freud even as eros draws Jung toward the death-obsessed Spielrein. As it is, a little of May’s wildly actressy first-act exhalations go a long way, with enough head-jerking to recall nothing so much as a modern-day and more exalted Linda Blair at her most fiendishly possessed. A very real talent with a lovely deep voice and large devouring eyes, May is much better once Spielrein has laid waste to her more masochistic demons and can turn her attentions toward liberating Jung in their joint quest to be “free.” (Not, by the way, that a doctor — then or now — can be seen to seduce his patient. As is said in the play, “Law students are not normally expected to rob banks.”)
But with Hatley’s sliding paneled set bearing down upon the actors, any cinematic fluidity to the production gives way to a slowly gathering sense that the staging is oppressively at odds with a fundamentally introspective play. All the more reason, then, to honor the unshowy and truthful work of Fiennes, the actor’s fierce-eyed magnetism hidden behind thin rectangular spectacles and a moustache to match. The star is at his most riveting as he disappears in and out of the brooding, shadowy dreamscape of Peter Mumford’s lighting, only to seize up with self-reproach once Jung again takes centerstage. There’s something faintly self-aggrandizing about the ending of a play that wants in one fell swoop to anticipate the bloodlust of an all-too-lethal time.
And yet, even as “The Talking Cure” reaches in vain to embrace the epic, Fiennes always grounds the play in the story of a man who made his unmistakable mark upon that same bloodied century without ever making peace with himself.