“There are some very interesting discussions being had in a way that feels fresh and nuanced”
You know how I know the boxy over-sized blazer trend is going to be something we wildly regret in seasons to come? Because I just watched two girls in full school uniform and I coveted their blazers. No, surely we can all agree that the English school uniform is most certainly not enviable. So something must be terribly wrong.
But Bettina and Asha are hardly concerned with their outfit choices. Sisters in year 10 and year 13 respectively, they often meet outside school on the concrete steps, both avoiding the journey home, though for different reasons. Bettina is being bullied on the bus by a group of nasty school kids. So she dawdles, hoping her sister will at least accompany her if not defend her. Asha, however, has no interest in going home until her mum has left for work at 6:30pm. They’re not talking because Asha submitted an essay critiquing Gandhi, which her mum is taking personally.
There are some very interesting discussions being had in a way that feels fresh and nuanced. The trouble, though, is that they’re presented as a singular conversation when actually there are quite a lot of things going on. First, we’ve got the idea that within a fight for progress, history often only remembers those voices most convenient.
And then there’s the idea that social justice shouldn’t be something you have to earn through good behaviour. And within both main discussions there’s the inescapable subject of race, of microaggressions and this country’s obsession with othering. But they’re not the same argument, and somehow they’re presented as one, all tied together by yet another idea about taking action, being the change you wish to see in the world, if you’ll pardon the Gandhi paraphrasing.
Of course it’s fine to have multiple ideas at play, but maybe not so many when the play is nearly entirely exposition; we never really see anything happen, rather we see the sisters discussing the happenings before and/or after. The subject matter is strong enough that the conversation holds my attention for a solid hour I think, but that’s about as long as my focus can handle without anything actually happening before I start thinking about oversized blazers and their place in the fashion world.
Playing Bettina, Anoushka Chadha’s performance is sweet and vulnerable. She’s excellent at throwing a little lip wobbler, and she shines best when the conversation feels more ad-libbed or verbatim.
Safiyya Ingar’s Asha, however, is in another league. Still so doe-eyed about the world in one sense, and so savvy in another, you feel like you’re really witnessing someone making massive strides in their self-discovery. Bold and hesitant in turns, Ingar is masterful at giving us glimpses of the impressive woman Asha will no doubt become, whilst maintaining an honest and winning naivety.
Debbie Duru’s design mirrors the simplicity of Sonali Bhattacharyya’s script’s set-up. Besides an LED bus screen, and a brief appearance of a very excited hamster it’s pretty much entirely up to Ingar and Chadha, surrounded by a few concrete blocks, to keep us engaged. And if the play were the right length, i.e., half an hour shorter, this would be plenty. The subject matter is meaty enough to do away with flashy production value or heaps of props.
It’s frustrating to see such strong ideas so intelligently expressed and beautifully performed, let down by editing. That said, Two Billion Beats gave me a lot to contemplate on my journey home, and I’d rather that than a slick one-hour with nothing to say.
“a passionate dialogue between two great minds, performed by two great actors”
“Do you count on your tomorrow’s? I do not” quips Dr. Sigmund Freud during the opening moments of Mark St Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session”. A BBC announcer has just echoed and crackled from the radio, detailing Hitler’s refusal to withdraw his troops from Poland. It is not the impending war, however, that gives the sense of ‘borrowed time’, but Freud’s terminal cancer that eats away at his health and his will to live.
Dr. Freud is addressing his question to C. S. Lewis who has come to visit him in his Hampstead home. It is an imaginary meeting: not improbable, but one that lets us into a riveting fantasy world to witness the conversations between two of the 20th century’s greatest academics. Lewis’s recent embrace of Christianity stands in stark contrast to Dr. Freud, whose atheist beliefs couldn’t be more different. The ensuing duel, in which words are the only ammunition, powerfully demonstrates the differences between the two men – in age, perspective and spirituality – but also how well matched they are. You can sense the mutual respect and appreciation as they each fight for their own intellectual (and in Freud’s case, literal) survival.
Crammed into the intimate back room of the King’s Head, the audience is a swarm of flies on the wall. Brad Caleb Lee’s design is part office, part practice room, juxtaposed with imagery from Freud’s mind splashed on the floor and the walls. This does not detract from the realism of the piece. Yet what essentially gives the play its authenticity is the impeccable performances from the two actors. Within minutes you forget you are in a theatre. Julian Bird, as Dr. Sigmund Freud, exudes the unseen bruises of a dying man while refusing to let his brilliant, active mind be dragged down by illness. An extraordinary performance in which every sinew is part of the role. Language and body language are inextricably married. Séan Browne’s C. S. Lewis is equally fascinating and steeped in authenticity. Arriving late for the meeting he is initially diffident and perhaps aware that he might be out of his league here. But as the couple lock horns his arguments reach higher ground. The cut glass (albeit chipped rather than clipped) English accent capture’s Lewis’s status perfectly. He has yet to write his famous works and is still finding his voice, but Browne wonderfully depicts a character who holds fast to the convictions of his beliefs.
Under Peter Darney’s direction, the script explores the beliefs of both men like a choreographed sparring match. Amid the air raid sirens, the two scholars debate religion, love, family, the existence (or non-existence) of God, the meaning of life and, of course, sex. Admittedly in an hour and a half you cannot dig too deep into the respective philosophies, but we get a pretty nutritious nutshell. “Things are only simple when we choose not to examine them”. Freud’s line is a reminder that we need to keep our attention focused. Low flying planes and radio bulletins punctuate the piece with reminders of the impending war, during which Browne betrays a shell-shocked vulnerability that adds further light and shade to Lewis’s puritanism. There is a touching, and graphic, moment when he tries to alleviate the physical pain Freud is in.
There is no real conclusion to the piece, but then again, the debate between believers and non-believers will never be resolved. Based on a passage from Dr. Armand Nicholi’s “The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life” we come away a little more enlightened. “It is madness to think we could solve the greatest mystery of all time in one morning” says C. S. Lewis. “Freud’s Last Session” doesn’t try to solve it in an evening either. But it does offer up a passionate dialogue between two great minds, performed by two great actors. It’s not an easy text to get right but they achieve it in a very real way with performances as precise as they are natural.